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Cognitive Therapy Helps Depressed Diabetes Patients Control Blood Sugar

Mar 6, 2014

Depression is up to twice as high among diabetes patients as in the general population…. 

Experts estimate that only half of diabetic patients maintain targeted blood sugar control despite the knowledge that poor compliance can lead to complications. New research suggests addressing participants’ moods and their treatment management skills may bring faster relief of depression symptoms.

In a new study, a group of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) investigators report that a program of cognitive behavioral therapy that addressed both mood and diabetes self-care led to improved blood sugar control and produced faster relief of depression in patients with poorly-controlled type 2 iabetes.

Steven Safren, Ph.D. stated that, "The association between depression and type 2 diabetes is well documented, but clinical trials of either medication or psychological treatment for depression have had mixed or negative effects on adherence to treatment program."

"In this study we adapted our approach that has improved treatment adherence among HIV/AIDS patients by addressing both depression and treatment self-management skills."

The investigators followed 87 adults whose type 2 diabetes was poorly controlled despite treatment with oral medications and who also met criteria for a diagnosis of depression.

At the outset of the trial, all participants received an enhanced version of usual diabetes self-care counseling — including meetings with a nurse educator to set goals for blood sugar monitoring, with a dietitian to set dietary and exercise goals, and with a counselor to set strategies for meeting those goals and other medical recommendations.

A subgroup of 45 randomly selected participants took part in nine to 12 additional weekly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions where they worked on problem-solving strategies, reviewed how well they met goals of the previous week, and tracked their moods.

While the sessions included typical aspects of CBT for depression — such as training in adaptive thinking, relaxation and activity scheduling — they also focused on specific elements of diabetes self-care.

Throughout the year-long study period, participants in both groups continued any previously prescribed depression treatment; but if symptoms were found to have worsened at assessment visits, they were referred for additional therapy or adjustments to antidepressant medication.

Participants’ adherence to their prescribed diabetes medication was tracked by an electronic monitoring system that recorded whenever the pill bottle was opened, and their adherence to glucose monitoring, by data downloaded from the monitor.

At the end of the first four months, participants receiving the integrated CBT treatment were significantly more successful than the usual-treatment group in adhering to their prescribed medications and their glucose monitoring schedule.

They also showed an improvement in blood sugar control similar to what might be seen with the addition of a weak glucose-lowering medication.

These differences in diabetes management and glucose control were also seen at the eight- and 12-month assessments.

While the CBT group had more rapid improvement of their depression symptoms, scoring significantly better on two depression scales at the 4-month assessment, depression symptoms in the usual-treatment group had improved by the eight- and 12-month assessments, removing any statistically significant differences between the groups at the end of the study period.

"It is possible," Safren notes, "that participants in the usual-treatment group were more likely to be referred for additional depression treatment after the four-month assessment, since they were less likely to show improvement at that visit."

"We are hopeful that this approach can be helpful in treating any medical illness in which patients also have depression," he said.

Practice Pearls:
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy that addressed mood and diabetes self-care led to improved blood sugar control and produced faster relief of depression
  • The association between depression and type 2 diabetes is well documented
  • Adherence to their prescribed medication was crucial

Diabetes Care, March 2014