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  • People who have had COVID-19 are at higher risk to develop diabetes, according to new research.
  • After recovering from COVID-19, people were at 40 percent increased risk for having diabetes.
  • Study focused on people getting medical care from Veterans Affairs.

People who developed COVID-19 also appear to experience higher rates of diabetes, according to new research.

The study, which was published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology Monday, found that people who recovered from COVID-19 had a 40 percent greater risk of being diagnosed with diabetes.

The report does not claim that COVID-19 causes diabetes — although that may ultimately be the case — but rather that there appears to be an associated link between the two health conditions.

Why that happens is still unclear.

Some public health experts have argued that the findings should be taken with a grain of salt since the study only looked at people from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) — a group that, in general, tends to be older and experiences more financial hardship along with higher rates of underlying illness — and may therefore not be representative of the general population.

Many endocrinologists suspect that COVID-19 may damage the pancreas and cause issues with blood sugar control, which could eventually lead to diabetes.

“As we note the two-year mark of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are continuing to learn about the full impact of this virus and its potential to cause long-term side effects, including diabetes,” Dr. Camillo Ricordi, the director of the Diabetes Research Institute, told Healthline.

“In the coming months, as the results of more studies around this topic, we will have a firmer grasp on the larger scope of COVID-19, how we can prevent further diagnoses and alleviate any serious side effects, like diabetes,” Ricordi added.

The study evaluated the health records of 181,280 the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs patients diagnosed with COVID between March 1, 2020, and September 30, 2021.

Their medical records were then compared to those of 4.1 million VA patients who did not have COVID and another 4.28 million patients treated between 2018 and 2019.

The research team found that those who had COVID-19 faced a 40 percent greater risk of being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and were at a greater risk of being prescribed medication to help manage their blood sugar levels.

Though the risk of diabetes was greater in individuals, who experienced more severe illness with COVID-19, the heightened risk of diabetes was present in patients who had milder cases, too.

The vast majority of patients who were diagnosed with diabetes after recovering from COVID-19 had Type 2 diabetes, not Type 1 diabetes.

Furthermore, patients at low risk of diabetes before the pandemic also appeared to have an increased risk of diabetes after COVID-19.

Glycometabolic abnormalities have previously been reported in patients actively experiencing SARS-CoV-2.

According to the researchers, Type 2 diabetes may potentially be a component of long COVID — a post-infection condition that causes lingering symptoms and health issues.

“Researchers found this association because clinically we were seeing new-onset diabetes, or worsening of existing diabetes, post COVID-19 infection. The clinical evidence has already been building,” says Dr. Navinder Jassil, the director of the Endocrinology and Diabetes Center at Deborah Heart and Lung Center.

It’s worth noting that there are limitations to the study, including that the cohort was predominantly made up of older white males, and the findings will need to be confirmed through additional research.

“The study being done by the VA may impact the findings, since there is an inherent bias in the population, further studies and analysis will need to be done on the general public,” Jassil said.

Ricordi says SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, can target the pancreas and insulin-producing cells.

This could impact how the pancreas releases insulin and potentially increase a person’s risk of diabetes.

“In case of type 2 diabetes in subjects already at risk, this could become evident within months,” Ricordi said.

Growing evidence demonstrates that COVID-19 may trigger autoimmune responses in some individuals, in which the body attacks its own cells.

“This has shown to lead to the destruction of cells in the pancreas, which are vital to producing insulin,” Ricordi said.

Over time, insulin resistance — when associated with inflammation — could lead to diabetes, he added.

Ricordi says common early signs of diabetes include increased thirst and hunger, frequent urination, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and blurry vision.

If you had COVID-19 and experience any of these symptoms, it may be worth asking your doctor to screen you for diabetes — especially if you have predisposing risks or a family history of diabetes.

“If any of these signs or symptoms present, an individual should visit their primary care physician,” Ricordi said.

New research has found a strong link between COVID-19 and an increased risk of diabetes. The researchers suspect that diabetes may be another component of long COVID. Although more research is needed to understand the association, endocrinologists believe that COVID-19 may damage the pancreas and impact how it releases insulin.