Vital Signs Blog

Lab results do little to change older adults' behavior, research finds

Here's discouraging news: New research has found poor results from blood sugar and blood pressure tests did not appear to prompt healthy changes to diet and exercise among older adults.

On the bright side, the study turned up a few exceptions. The research analyzed results from the 2006, 2008 and 2010 National Institute on Aging's Health and Retirement Study and found some participants lost weight, quit smoking or curbed their drinking after laboratory tests revealed dangerously high blood sugar or blood pressure levels. But not many.

Ryan Edwards, Ryan Edwards, an economist and City University of New York associate professor, conducted the analysis. Edwards did so after hearing doctors discuss the critical information about patients' health risks that clinicians glean from laboratory results, the economist said during an interview. He wondered how patients react to lab work when the results are ominous.

Most don't react, he said, based on his analysis that was published as a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The Health and Retirement Study in 2006 began to collect biomarkers such as blood pressure and blood sugar levels from a randomly selected half of the survey's more than 18,000 respondents, who are ages 50 and older. Those with high laboratory results were notified and instructed to see a physician.

It appears some did. “I don't want to oversell these results,” Edward said. “The changes in behavior are not widespread, nor are they huge, but they're not zero and not insignificant.

The study found behavior changes among 0.7% of the 2006 survey respondents with lab results. That sliver included those with high blood sugar results but no previous diabetes diagnoses. Subsequent surveys found a 40% increase in diabetes diagnoses among the group. On average, body weight dropped 2.2% among the group within two years. Respondents in the small subset also said they exercised more.

Notably, previously diagnosed diabetics with poor blood sugar demonstrated no progress on weight, but their spouses did. Edwards said that may suggest a household improvement in diet, but that greater disability among diagnosed diabetics could make exercise more difficult and therefore weight loss more problematic.

The results also found that those with a prior diagnosis of high blood pressure reported some healthier behavior, such as less smoking and less intense drinking, but also less light exercise.

For anyone who has struggled to change their own habits for the better, the results may be unsurprising, and studies generally support the experience that lifestyle habits are hard to budge, even when we know what's at stake.

For some, information about a diagnosis can be hard to understand. To others, the consequence of inaction may be years away and may seem remote. Nonetheless, with obesity and heart disease endemic in the United States, the inertia is harmful and costly and researchers are on the hunt for which incentives might spark a change .

Follow Melanie Evans on Twitter: @MHmevans


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