Be it a smartphone, smartwatch, tablet, or laptop. When it comes to technology, many of us frequently hear that we are too “plugged in”. Although exercising moderation around the use of our favorite devices is important, research has shown that we can also lean on technology to support our healthy aging goals. Assistance with medication management, providing avenues to socialize and connect with others, facilitating access to health information, and helping folks keep focused and motivated as they work toward personal goals such as smoking cessation or weight loss are just a few examples of how being “plugged in” can be valuable (1-4).
But does this value extend to those who are diagnosed with or are at risk of diabetes, one of the leading causes of death globally (5)?
We can turn to a recent systematic review about the effect of mobile phone apps on various diabetes subtypes for guidance (6). The three types of diabetes highlighted in this review include: prediabetes (a condition where blood sugar levels are elevated, thereby increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes), type 1 diabetes (a disease in which a person’s immune system attacks cells that produce insulin), and type 2 diabetes (a disease associated with poor nutrition, excess weight, and low activity levels) (6-9). Given that adopting a healthy lifestyle is a key treatment strategy across diabetes subtypes and a preventive strategy for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, it is no surprise that the mobile phone apps studied focused on lifestyle modification. App features varied, but examples include the monitoring of diet and exercise behaviours, support for adjusting medications, feedback from health care provides, and cognitive strategies to boost motivation (6).
What the research tells us
The most promising results are for type 2 diabetes. More specifically, the review found that mobile apps for lifestyle modification can lower average blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. These reductions occurred both in the short-term (3-6 months) and the long-term (9-12 months). Unfortunately, the results for pre-diabetes and type 1 diabetes were not as positive or as convincing. In people with prediabetes or type 1 diabetes, using these mobile apps does not appear to have an effect on average blood sugar levels in the short-term. No comment can be made on the long-term effect for prediabetes because there was no data for this outcome. On the other hand, a decrease in average blood sugar levels may occur in the long-term for people with type 1 diabetes, but this finding was based on just one study and therefore more research is needed before definitive conclusions can be made.
These results point to the need for more research in two areas. The first being the intersection between mobile app usage and prediabetes and type 1 diabetes. The second being the effectiveness and safety of these apps past a one year period (6).
For folks with type 2 diabetes, the addition of a mobile phone app that supports lifestyle adjustments to your treatment arsenal may be worth a try. Before you dive into this virtual app ocean, there are several considerations to keep in mind: some apps are free while others come at a cost; make sure to compare and contrast multiple apps before settling on one; look at the features offered; read the reviews left by past and present users; and pay attention to any comments about adverse effects or challenges, as app safety is not always adequately evaluated. Don’t forget to connect with your health care provider to discuss your interest in this strategy, perhaps how best to integrate it into your treatment plan, and any concerns over safety that you may have.