Everything you need to know about HbA1c
Hemoglobin A1c, HbA1c, A1c…
You have probably heard these letters and numbers before. However, what do they actually mean? What is an HbA1c test? What is a “normal” HbA1c level? What can you do to lower your HbA1c? These are great questions. Well, we’ve put together everything you need to know about HbA1c here.
What is the HbA1c test?
Hemoglobin is the part of your blood that carries oxygen. It’s what gives your blood its red color. When glucose is processed by your body and enters your bloodstream, a small amount of it attaches to this hemoglobin. It binds to produce glycated hemoglobin (commonly known as HbA1c or A1c). When your body has trouble using glucose effectively, the amount in your body increases. The result is more glucose is attached to your hemoglobin.
Red blood cells are regularly replaced in the bloodstream. They only have a lifespan of between 90 and 120 days. This is why an HbA1c measurement only gives an average over the last 2-3 months.
What is a normal HbA1c range?
The recommended A1c target for a person living with diabetes is 7% or lower. Some people remember this figure as “lucky number 7". People living with diabetes will have their own target HbA1c, as discussed with their healthcare professional.
Guidelines from Diabetes Canada say the ideal HbA1c is 6.5% or lower. However, people who are at risk of developing diabetes will generally have a lower target. It is often 42 mmol/L (6%) or below. In someone living without diabetes, a high HbA1c could indicate they have developed diabetes.
Reducing your A1c value can decrease your risk of many diabetes-related complications. Your HbA1c number gives you and your doctor an idea of how your diabetes is being managed over time. However, it does not tell you about major changes in your day-to-day blood glucose levels during that period.
Why measure HbA1c? Why is HbA1c important?
HbA1c estimates your average blood glucose over a period of time. The higher your HbA1c level is, the more glucose in your blood over that 3 months. This can increase the risk of developing diabetes-related complications such as eye, foot and kidney problems.
Generally, you should check your A1c no fewer than twice a year. Most healthcare professionals suggest checking every three months. That’s because that is the approximate lifespan of blood cells. Speak with your healthcare professional to determine where and how frequently you should check your HbA1c level. Checking may differ depending on your need.
What is the difference between HbA1c level and a blood glucose level?
There are a few differences between HbA1c and a blood glucose level.
|HbA1c level||Blood glucose level|
Measured by a healthcare professional in a lab from a blood sample
Checked at home or on the go with a blood glucose meter (glucometer)
Gives an average of blood glucose levels over the previous 2-3 months
Shows a snapshot of what your current blood glucose level is
Gives a view of longer-term diabetes management and therapy
Gives a reading that can be acted on immediately to make day to day adjustments to your insulin or diet as needed
What does my HbA1c level mean?
Knowing your HbA1c level is one matter, but actually understanding what it means is another. Data isn’t useful if you can’t understand it, right?
HbA1c is an average of blood sugar levels. A high or above target HbA1c means that blood sugar levels have been consistently above target. This includes the 2-3 month period before the HbA1c measurement.
That data would suggest that your current therapy plan may not be working for you. Your healthcare professional can look at making adjustments to help you reduce your HbA1c.
You may find it useful to keep a record of your HbA1c levels. You could use a diary or electronic logbook. It can help you see if you can spot any patterns or trends. What’s important, though, is trying to keep your HbA1c level within your target as much as possible.
Why does my HbA1c level change?
Your HbA1c level will vary depending on the amount of glucose in your blood. If your blood glucose levels have been higher in the weeks before the measurement, then your HbA1c level will reflect that. There are some other factors that can impact your blood glucose levels and your HbA1c:
- Illness for a period of time, for example with the flu
- Lifestyle changes that have affected your activity level
- Feeling stressed or depressed
Some medications, such as steroids, can also impact your HbA1c. Some medical conditions which affect the red blood cells could also impact HbA1c. Please speak to your healthcare professional if this is the case.
How to reduce my HbA1c
It’s essential to try and keep your HbA1c level within your target range. We know this isn’t easy and it takes time. But there is evidence to suggest that every 11 mmol/L (1%) HbA1c reduction can make a difference. It can lead to a significant reduction in the risk of diabetes-related complications.
If your HbA1c is above your individual target, there are several things that can bring it down to target.
- Exercise more regularly
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
- Stop smoking (if you do smoke)
- Talk to other people living with diabetes to learn from their experiences
- Look into local or online diabetes education courses you could attend or tools you could use. Your healthcare professional may be able to suggest some that would be suitable for you
Your healthcare professional may also review your medication and make some adjustments.
Is HbA1c the only measure for diabetes management?
Since HbA1c is an average value, it doesn’t generally show day-to-day changes in your blood glucose. For this reason, it is generally used in combination with other things. Another helpful bit of information is your time in range. This looks at how often you are in your target blood sugar range and the amount of time spent too high or too low.
HbA1c is a really important tool for you and your healthcare professional in managing your diabetes. However, it is not the only tool. It can be used in combination with other measures. If you are unsure when your last HbA1c level was taken, please contact your healthcare professional. They can check and see when you should next have one.
- American Diabetes Association (n.d). Understanding A1c. Retrieved from: https://www.diabetes.org/a1c. Accessed February 3 2021.
- Diabetes Quebec (2014). Diabetes Complications. Retrieved from: https://www.diabete.qc.ca/en/understand-diabetes/all-about-diabetes/complications/diabetes-complications/. Accessed June 2 2021.
- Diabetes Canada (n.d). Definition, Classification and Diagnosis of Diabetes, Prediabetes and Metabolic Syndrome. Retrieved from: https://guidelines.diabetes.ca/cpg/chapter3. Accessed June 2 2021.
- Medical News Today (2019). How can you lower your A1c levels? Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317216. Accessed February 3 2021.
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