About 1 in 10 people in the United States have diabetes and the overwhelming majority of those have type 2 diabetes.
While the condition often develops in people over the age of 45, it’s becoming more common in children, teens, and young adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The agency also reports that an additional 84 million Americans have prediabetes, a condition that often leads to type 2 diabetes within five years without proper treatment.
There are numerous risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes, including poor diet and a lack of exercise.
However, a study published today suggests that a hormone typically associated with heart problems may increase certain people’s risk for diabetes.
Dr. Joshua J. Joseph, an endocrinologist at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, said that researchers have known for some time that aldosterone, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, increases blood pressure.
Previous research has linked aldosterone to an increased risk for heart problems in people who undergo chronic stress.
Excess aldosterone in the blood — called hyperaldosteronism — is associated with conditions such as congestive heart failure, cirrhosis, and some kidney diseases.
But only recently have researchers learned this hormone also increases insulin resistance in muscle and impairs insulin secretion from the pancreas.
“Insulin is the hormone responsible for lower blood glucose by opening doors in the blood vessels to let blood glucose out into muscle, brain, heart, etc. where glucose can be used for energy production,” Joseph told Healthline. “The two major causes of type 2 diabetes are an inability to utilize ‘insulin resistance’ or impaired insulin secretion from the pancreas.”
But the main question the new research hoped to answer was simple: How much does aldosterone’s influence on the body’s processes increase a person’s risk for developing type 2 diabetes?
The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, examined 1,600 people “across diverse populations” for a decade as part of the National Institutes of Health’s Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis.
By testing blood samples for aldosterone levels, Joseph and his team found that people with higher levels of the hormone were more than twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared with participants with lower levels of aldosterone.
Researchers also found that aldosterone’s impact was greater on certain ethnic groups, namely African Americans and Chinese Americans, who had a three- to tenfold risk for developing diabetes if they had higher aldosterone levels.
These populations are also groups who are more likely to have undiagnosed diabetes, according to the CDC.
Dr. K. Craig Kent, dean of Ohio State University’s College of Medicine, called the research and its findings “an important step toward finding new ways to prevent a major chronic disease.”
“This shows how our diabetes and metabolism scientists are focused on creating a world without diabetes,” he said in a statement.
For Joseph — the lead investigator of the new study — this line of research has some personal motives behind it.
“I looked into this as a promise to my father. He had high levels of aldosterone that contributed to his hypertension, and he thought it also might be linked to his diabetes,” Joseph said in a release accompanying the research. “As my career progressed, I had the opportunity to research it and we did find a link to diabetes.”
Previous research Joseph has been a part of has shown the benefits of “Life’s Simple 7” — including higher physical activity, healthy diet, not smoking, and keeping cholesterol, blood sugar, and body mass index within healthy ranges.
These factors were associated with a lower risk for diabetes as well as lowering aldosterone levels.
“Thus, currently our group is focused on these lifestyle behaviors to prevent diabetes,” Joseph said.
Next, Joseph is expecting to start enrolling patients in a federally funded clinical trial at Ohio State to evaluate the role aldosterone plays in exactly how the body metabolizes sugar in the blood.
African American participants with prediabetes will take medication aimed at lowering their aldosterone levels.
The new research will evaluate the impact of blood sugar and insulin on patients.
“We know there’s a relationship between aldosterone and type 2 diabetes,” Joseph said. “Now we need to determine thresholds that will guide clinical care and the best medication for treatment.”