Poor math skills may worsen diabetes control

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A new study suggests that diabetic adults’ ability to work with numbers may affect their management of the disease -- and that, in turn, may help explain racial differences in diabetes control.

A number of studies have found that compared with their white counterparts, African Americans with diabetes tend to have poorer blood sugar control -- as well as higher rates of diabetes complications, like heart disease and kidney failure.

Numbers come into play everyday for people with diabetes -- in counting carbohydrates, adjusting insulin doses and keeping track of blood sugar readings, for instance.

In the new study, published in the journal Diabetes Care, researchers looked at whether patients’ diabetes-related “numeracy” was related to their long-term blood sugar control.

The study included 383 adults with type 2 diabetes who took a test that gauged their ability to conquer a range of number-related tasks -- such as interpreting nutrition labels on packaged foods, calculating calories and carbohydrates in a meal, and keeping track of medication doses.

Overall, the researchers found, patients with the strongest test scores generally had better results on A1C tests, which estimate a person’s average blood sugar level over the previous few months.

What’s more, number skills seemed to partly explain why African- American patients generally had poorer A1C scores than white patients did.

The current findings suggest that such number skills may be an unrecognized factor, write Dr. Chandra Y. Osborn and colleagues at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The authors suggest that the poorer skills could be due in part to less opportunity to take relevant courses, and lower socioeconomic status.

The implication, they say, is that helping diabetes patients with their numeracy might also help them with their blood sugar control. And that, in turn, might reduce racial disparities in diabetes complications.

Future studies, the researchers conclude, should look at the effects of numeracy education on patients’ diabetes control.

SOURCE: Diabetes Care, September 2009.