By combining results of common blood tests, the researchers were able to come up with a way to predict risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases.
A score based on common blood tests may someday help people gauge their risk of developing a chronic disease like diabetes or dementia within three years of taking the test.
The Intermountain Chronic Disease Risk Score was 77 to 78 percent accurate in predicting whether someone would be diagnosed with diabetes, kidney failure, coronary artery disease and dementia, among other illnesses. It's based on the results of a comprehensive metabolic panel, which includes tests for blood glucose and liver function, and complete blood count, which measures the quantity of different types of blood cells.
The hope is that the score could eventually help physicians better allocate their time and resources, says Heidi May, a cardiovascular epidemiologist with the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, and principal investigator of the study. For example, a patient whose score puts her in the high-risk group might get more intense patient education about lifestyle or other prevention measures, and a follow-up visit in six months rather than a year.
The tests used in the score are commonly performed at checkups, and the score itself can be calculated by the hospital's electronic health record, making it easier for doctors to use. "Clinicians are so busy and have to worry about so many things," says May. The so-called ICHRON score is similar to risk scores previously developed and now used by Intermountain Healthcare, a nonprofit hospital system, to predict the future risk of death, hospital readmission and serious disease.
The research was presented Friday at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology and hasn't been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
"It's a fascinating concept," says Wayne Dysinger, a preventive and family medicine physician and CEO of Lifestyle Medicine Solutions, a primary care practice in southern California, who wasn't involved in the study. "They may be on to something, but it's too early to say for sure." For one thing, the score would have to be shown to be accurate in a more general population outside Utah, which is largely white and has lower rates of smoking and obesity than other states.
The score was developed based on the data in one group of primary care patients and then tested again in another group, and it is gender-specific. Among the more than 144,000 patients studied, 7 percent of women and 9 percent of men were diagnosed with at least one chronic disease in the next three years, most commonly diabetes or coronary artery disease.
Among women, those with a high ICHRON score were 11 times more likely to be diagnosed with a chronic disease than those with a low score. Women with a moderate score were three times more likely to be diagnosed. Men with a high score were 14 times more likely to be diagnosed than those with a low score, and those with a moderate score more than five times more likely to be diagnosed.
Dysinger notes the prediction isn't perfect, and that people don't have to wait to be identified as at-risk to change their lifestyle, starting with turning away from processed foods to whole foods. According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of premature heart disease, stroke and diabetes can be prevented through lifestyle measures like avoiding tobacco use, keeping weight at a healthy level and exercise.
Katherine Hobson is a freelance health and science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She's on Twitter: @katherinehobson.