Type 2 diabetes has been shown to cause lung disorders for the first time in a new study funded by Diabetes UK.

In the largest-ever genetic study to explore how genes affect blood sugar levels and health outcomes, researchers from Imperial College London concluded that lung disorders should now be considered a complication of type 2 diabetes.

When examining the impact of blood sugar levels on lung function, the researchers found that people with type 2 diabetes who had a three-fold increase in average blood sugar levels, experienced a 20% drop in lung capacity and function.

The findings, presented at the Diabetes UK Professional Conference 2023 at the end of April, highlight the need for healthcare professionals to be alert to lung complications within patients with type 2 diabetes, alongside kidney disease, heart attack and strokes.

More than five million people in the UK live with diabetes, and 90% have type 2. These patients often have dangerously high blood sugar levels caused by the body either not making enough insulin or not responding to the insulin that is made.

Chronically high blood sugar levels can damage organs and tissues, causing kidney failure, eye and foot problems, heart attacks and strokes. Previous research has shown that lung conditions, including restrictive lung disease, fibrosis and pneumonia, are more common in people with type 2 diabetes, but no causal link had been established.

Using statistical techniques, the researchers analysed data from almost 500,000 participants on 17 major studies, including the UK BioBank, to determine whether there was a causal link between impaired lung function and high blood sugar levels. Lung function was measured using two standard spirometry tests used to diagnose lung conditions.

High blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes were shown to impair lung function directly. Statistical modelling of the study data showed that an increase in average blood sugar levels from 4 mmol/L to 12 mmol/L could result in a 20% drop in lung capacity and function.

Dr Elizabeth Robertson, director of research at Diabetes UK, said: ‘These results are a reminder of the seriousness of type 2 diabetes and the importance of supporting people with the condition to manage their blood sugar levels so they can live well with the condition and avoid future complications.

‘Lung conditions can be life-changing and life-limiting, and it is crucial that healthcare professionals are aware of the impact of high blood sugar levels on lung health.’

The researchers hope that further studies will examine whether monitoring lung function should be part of routine care for people with diabetes.

Dr Robertson added: ‘Research must now investigate how best to prevent, monitor and treat lung disorders in people with type 2 diabetes.

‘This could help stem the rising number of lung-related hospital admissions and potentially save thousands of lives.’

This article first appeared on our sister publication, Nursing in Practice.