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You've probably had your blood glucose level checked — a quick prick of the finger and a drop of blood reveals how much sugar is in your bloodstream. This is a helpful tool for diagnosing and managing diabetes, but it only shows your blood glucose level at that moment. Unless you've fasted and timed the test correctly, it's not an accurate way to know how your body processes sugar all the time.
Your A1C level is your average blood glucose level over the past three months. Knowing this number helps your doctor find and treat diabetes (and prediabetes) before you experience serious complications.
Why Your A1C Level Matters
Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most cases of type 2 diabetes can be managed with diet, exercise, and medication, but uncontrolled blood glucose levels increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, eye problems, foot and leg amputations, and kidney failure.
Approximately 30.3 million Americans have diabetes — that's about 9 percent of the U.S. population. Of those living with diabetes, 7.2 million are undiagnosed. Another 84.1 million American adults have prediabetes, meaning they're at risk of developing diabetes without medical intervention and lifestyle changes. Regular A1C testing would help your doctor catch the disease early, often while it's preventable. If you've already been diagnosed with diabetes, your A1C tells your doctor whether the current treatment plan is working.
What the Numbers Mean
The A1C test measures how much glucose is attached to the hemoglobin in your blood. The results are reported as percentages. To diagnose diabetes with an A1C test, physicians use the following scale:
- Normal: below 5 percent
- Prediabetes: 5.7 to 6.4 percent
- Diabetes: 6.5 percent or higher
It's recommended that diabetics maintain an A1C level below 7 percent to prevent complications.
7 Ways to Improve Your A1C
Whether you're managing diabetes or trying to avoid it, you can lower your blood glucose levels by:
Physical activity helps your body use insulin more efficiently, so it can better process the glucose in your blood. Consistent exercise can lower blood glucose and improve your A1C. It also lowers your risk for heart disease, stroke, and other serious diseases for which diabetics are susceptible. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise at least five days per week.
2. Eat Right
Go easy on the sweets and sugary beverages, white breads, potatoes, pastas, starchy vegetables, and other carbohydrate-rich foods as these increase your blood sugar levels. Instead, opt for foods that are high in fiber, fruits and vegetables, small servings of lean meats and poultry, and low-fat milk or cheese.
3. Take Medications as Prescribed
Some people can manage diabetes and prediabetes with diet and exercise; others need medication. The right medication and dosage varies from person to person, so work with your doctor to create an individualized treatment plan, and then stick to it.
4. Manage Your Stress
Stress causes your body to behave as if you're under attack. To prepare for a fight-or-flight response, the body stores up energy in the form of glucose and fat. Over time, this can increase your A1C level. To reduce stress, make time to relax, spend time with people you love, and do things you enjoy. Mindful meditation and other relaxation techniques can also help. If you still feel chronically stressed, talk to your doctor.
5. Stick to a Schedule
If you go too long without eating, your blood glucose levels could drop too low. You'll also be more likely to overeat later, causing your blood sugar to spike. Plan to eat three well-balanced meals and two healthy snacks each day.
6. Drink in Moderation
Drinking alcohol can cause drops in your blood sugar, especially if you haven't eaten or if your glucose levels are already low. Otherwise, the American Diabetes Association recommends that diabetics follow the same guidelines as everyone else: no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
7. Monitor Your Numbers
If you've been diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes, it's important to check your blood glucose levels as often as your doctor recommends to prevent spikes and dangerous drops. Your doctor will also want to keep a close watch on your A1C level to ensure your current treatment plan is keeping your condition under control.
Diabetes is a serious, lifelong condition, but with some healthy changes and the right care providers in your corner, you can still live a full and healthy life.