The media is touting a new study claiming global warming could be, at least in part, to blame for the “diabetes epidemic” sweeping the globe.
“When it gets warmer, there is higher incidence of diabetes,” Lisanne Blauw, a Ph.D. candidate at the Netherlands-based Einthoven Laboratory and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post Tuesday.
“It’s important to realize global warming has further effects on our health, not only on the climate,” Blauw said.
Blauw and her colleagues wrote “the diabetes incidence rate in the USA and prevalence of glucose intolerance worldwide increase with higher outdoor temperature” based on a meta-analysis of 14 years of data on diabetes and temperature in U.S. states.
Researchers hypothesize “the global increase in temperature contributes to the current type 2 diabetes epidemic” since warmer weather could inhibit brown adipose tissue (BAT) that turns food into energy for the body.
That could reduce the body’s ability to metabolize glucose, making Type 2 diabetes more likely.
“Hot weather can be more difficult for people with diabetes,” Mona Sarfaty, director of the Consortium on Climate Change and Health, told Popular Science.
“The heat keeps people from being active, which means they expend less calories, which can lead to more weight gain,” Sarfaty said. “Also, people with diabetes often have kidney problems. Dehydration — which comes with heat — can worsen kidney problems when people are dehydrated.”
HuffPo, of course, mentioned climate scientists declared 2016 the hottest year on record.
“On the basis of our results, a 1°C rise in environmental temperature would account for over 100 000 new diabetes cases per year in the USA alone, given a population of nearly 322 million people in 2015,” Blauw and her colleagues wrote.
Sounds terrifying, until you get into the data. Blauw and her colleagues even state that causality between temperature and diabetes can’t be drawn from their meta-analysis.
“The associative design of our study does not allow us to draw conclusions on causality,” the researchers wrote.
Also, the way the study measured diabetes prevalence is based on “self-reported” surveys collected by the U.S. government. That survey asks people if a doctor told them they had diabetes in the last year — it does not get actual diagnosis data from medical professionals.
Blauw’s study examines self-reported diabetes in the U.S.from 1996 to 2009, but right at the beginning of the study period medical professionals relaxed the definition of what constitutes diabetes.
The National Institutes of Health noted in 1998 that “these changes are likely to lead to an increase in the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes as it would become practically much easier to detect the large number of people whose disease is currently undiagnosed.”
On a more basic level, though, Blauw’s meta-analysis masks a confounding phenomenon. Many states actually showed a decrease in diabetes incidence rate as temperatures rose.
How can warm weather cause more incidents diabetes in South Carolina, but fewer in Louisiana? Not all researchers agreed with the study’s findings.
“I think calorie consumption and weight are probably the biggest by a country mile,” Adrian Vella, an endocrinologist who was not involved in the new study, told CNN.
“I think the general message always should be that association studies do not actually imply causation,” Vella said.
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