When your doctor tells you your A1c result, do you know what it means? Here's how A1c can be used to help improve diabetes management.
A1c, also known as hemoglobin test, glycohemoglobin, or HbA1c, is one of the most important diabetes data measurements. Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to your cells. Glucose in your blood attaches to hemoglobin while it is doing its work. If your blood sugar runs high over time, more glucose will attach and show up in an A1c test. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends checking your A1c during your doctor visits every 3 to 6 months. But, when your doctor tells you your A1c result, do you know what it means?
A1c vs. Your Glucose Meter
Your A1c is different from a blood sugar check that you do on your glucose meter. Your own blood sugar checks tell you a current, actionable reading. You can make short-term decisions off of your blood sugar result now. For example, if your current blood sugar is 200, you can choose to use some insulin to bring it down, or maybe you can reduce the carbohydrates in your next meal or snack to avoid pushing your blood sugar higher. Checking your blood sugar is key to adjusting day to day.
Your A1c, on the other hand, will tell you how well your blood sugar has been managed over time. It can be viewed as a 30- to 60-day average, measured in percentage. For example, if your A1c is 7.5, that means that 7.5% of your hemoglobin is covered with glucose and your average blood sugar is about 169 (mg/dL). But, A1c isn't just another number. It's a data point that you can use in your self-care.
Using A1c to improve your diabetes management
The average A1c of somebody without diabetes is 4-6%. People who don't have diabetes maintain this range without any additional thought or effort. But those of us who live with diabetes have to work to reach a level of 7% or less, as recommended by the ADA, and reduce the risk of developing additional health issues related to extended high blood sugar. An A1c test is an indicator of whether your current diabetes management plan is working optimally. If the result is higher than your target number, it may be time to discuss other treatment options with your doctor or adjust your eating strategies to reduce average blood sugar. Keep in mind that your target A1c goal may be different from other people's because certain other factors should be considered, such as diabetes type, additional health conditions and therapy needs, and whether you are at risk of severe hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
A1c isn't the full story
While your A1c can tell you a great deal about how well your personal diabetes management is going, it cannot tell you everything. If you think about the number as an average for the last 30 days, there is an enormous range that can get you there. If your A1c is 5 you may have maintained a steady blood sugar range of 90 to 104 over the last 3 months, or you could have been dealing with several high and low blood sugar episodes that average out to 97. Learn more from diaTribe about the nuance of using A1c as the gold standard and how it cannot capture other critical outcomes that matter.
Remember: living with diabetes is a journey, the numbers are simply data points, and there are always ways to adjust your management plan toward better health outcomes.
Want a better understanding of your latest A1c result? Check out our A1c conversion chart!
Originally published July 2018. Updated June 2020.