Metformin is approved in the US as a treatment for type 2 diabetes. A new study by Cardiff University, UK, involving over 180,000 people, reveals that the drug could also increase the lifespan of those individuals who are non-diabetics.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are around 29.1 million people in the US with diabetes, equating to 9.3% of the population.

Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90-95% of diabetes cases and is usually associated with older age, obesity and physical inactivity, family history of type 2 diabetes or a personal history of gestational diabetes.

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A commonly prescribed diabetes drug could offer surprising health benefits to non-diabetics – making them live longer.

Type 2 diabetes is preventable through healthful eating, regular physical activity and weight loss. It can be controlled with these same activities, but insulin or oral medication also may be necessary.

Metformin (metformin hydrochloride) is an oral biguanide antidiabetic medicine to treat type 2 diabetes, a condition in which the body does not use insulin normally and, therefore, cannot control the amount of sugar in the blood.

Metformin helps to control the amount of glucose (sugar) in your blood, it decreases the amount of glucose you absorb from your food and the amount of glucose made by your liver. Metformin also increases your body’s response to insulin, a natural substance that controls the amount of glucose in the blood.

The objective of the study, published in leading diabetes journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, was to compare all-cause mortality in diabetic patients treated with either sulphonylurea or metformin with matched individuals without diabetes including age, gender, same general practice, smoking status and clinical status criteria.

The data is from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD), which encompasses clinically rich, pseudonymized data collected from primary care general practitioners (GPs) in the UK and represents around 10% of the UK population.

The data available from the CPRD includes demographics, symptoms and diagnoses, prescriptions, immunizations, results of investigations, referrals to specialists and secondary care, feedback from other care settings, and lifestyle information such as body mass index (BMI), smoking, and exercise.

A total of 78,241 subjects treated with metformin, 12,222 treated with sulphonylurea were identified, together with 90,463 subjects without diabetes who were matched to their respective cases.

Recently, Medical News Today reported on research that finds metformin may slow the aging process and increase lifespan. That study was led by Wouter De Haes, of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium, and tested in roundworms. Also reported was research into health and lifespan improvement in middle-aged male mice using metformin.

In total, there were 7,498 deaths during the study. Lead author Professor Craig Currie, from Cardiff University’s School of Medicine, reveals:

What we found was illuminating. Patients treated with metformin had a small but statistically significant improvement in survival compared with the cohort of non-diabetics, whereas those treated with sulphonylureas had a consistently reduced survival compared with non-diabetic patients. This was true even without any clever statistical manipulation.”

“Surprisingly,” he adds, “the findings indicate that this cheap and widely prescribed diabetic drug may have beneficial effects not only on patients with diabetes but also for people without, and interestingly, people with type 1 diabetes. Metformin has been shown to have anti-cancer and anti-cardiovascular disease benefits. It can also reduce pre-diabetics’ chances of developing the disease by a third.”

He points out that life is not quite a bed of roses for those with type 2 diabetes. Ultimately, their disease progresses, and more aggressive treatments may need to be introduced as an alternative. He adds, “People lose on average around 8 years from their life expectancy after developing diabetes. The best way to avoid the condition altogether is by keeping moderately lean and taking some regular light exercise.”

Prof. Currie indicates that the next phase of the research will focus on investigating how patients prescribed with metformin as a first-line treatment can be treated thereafter to guarantee that their life expectancy can be closer aligned with the national average.