DIABETES rates are rising because patients are living longer than ever before, not just because of a growing obesity crisis, according to new research.

The overall number of cases of type 2 diabetes, the form caused by lifestyle factors such as obesity, has stabilised in recent years while mortality has fallen.

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This suggests increasing prevalence is due to longer survival of patients, reports the journal Diabetologia.

But there are significant differences based on gender, age and socioeconomic status, warn the researchers.

Earlier this year it was revealed the number of people living with diabetes in the UK has tipped over the four million mark for the first time.

The study focused on trends between 2004 and 2013 in Scotland and found new cases of type 2 diabetes have stabilised even though the number of patients continues to rise.

Improvements in diagnosis that occurred in the early 2000s, which reduced the number of undiagnosed cases, may have contributed. Stabilisation of adult obesity, an established risk factor, will also have played a role.

Death rates declined by 11.5 per cent for men and 15.7 per cent for women during the study period.

The findings also highlight widening inequality, with the number of people diagnosed rising amongst those from the most deprived backgrounds after 2010. The risk of death was also higher in these groups.

Over the time period of the study, more men were diagnosed, while the number of new cases among women fell slightly. They increased among men and women aged 45 to 55, but fell among the over 65s.

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Experts say understanding these trends will be crucial for planning how best to tackle the condition and assigning resources for prevention and treatment.

Dr Stephanie Read, of Edinburgh University, said: “Our study highlights major inequalities in type 2 diabetes cases by age, gender and socioeconomic status. Tackling these inequalities will be crucial for improving treatment and management of the condition.”

Other European studies have also noted a stabilisation or decline in incidence of type 2 diabetes.

Dr Read said: “Despite improved mortality rates, type 2 diabetes confers an excess risk of death compared with the non-diabetic population. 

“There is still scope to address the increased mortality associated with diabetes.”

Latest figures from GP patient data show there are now 4.05 million people with the condition in the UK.

This includes 3.5 million adults who have been diagnosed, an increase of 119,965 compared to the previous year, and an increase of 65 per cent over the past decade. There are also thought to be 549,000 people with undiagnosed type 2 diabetes.

Dr Read added: “Our findings support the notion stabilising obesity prevalence and the potentially smaller numbers of people with undiagnosed diabetes through intensified diagnostic activities in earlier years have resulted in stable or declining type 2 diabetes incidence in Scotland.

“Our findings suggest improved survival is the leading contributor to increasing diabetes prevalence and these trends are likely to have important implications for health services, partly through the possible increased incidence of complications resulting from longer diabetes durations.

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“Further research is required to identify the relative contributions of better treatment of people with type 2 diabetes and differences in characteristics of newly diagnosed patients to improvements in survival.”