Targeting weight loss interventions to reduce cardiovascular complications of type 2 diabetes: a machine learning-based post-hoc analysis of heterogeneous treatment effects in the Look AHEAD trial

Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 2017 Oct;5(10):808-815. doi: 10.1016/S2213-8587(17)30176-6. Epub 2017 Jul 12.


Background: The Action for Health in Diabetes (Look AHEAD) trial investigated whether long-term cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality could be reduced through a weight loss intervention among people with type 2 diabetes. Despite finding no significant reduction in cardiovascular events on average, it is possible that some subpopulations might have derived benefit. In this post-hoc analysis, we test the hypothesis that the overall neutral average treatment effect in the trial masked important heterogeneous treatment effects (HTEs) from intensive weight loss interventions.

Methods: We used causal forest modelling, which identifies HTEs, using a random half of the trial data (the training set). We applied Cox proportional hazards models to test the potential HTEs on the remaining half of the data (the testing set). The analysis was deemed exempt from review by the Columbia University Institutional Review Board, Protocol ID# AAAO3003.

Findings: Between Aug 22, 2001, and April 30, 2004, 5145 patients with type 2 diabetes were enrolled in the Look AHEAD randomised controlled trial, of whom 4901 were included in the The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Repository and included in our analyses: 2450 for model development and 2451 in the testing dataset. Baseline HbA1c and self-reported general health distinguished participants who differentially benefited from the intervention. Cox models for the primary composite cardiovascular outcome revealed a number needed to treat of 28·9 to prevent 1 event over 9·6 years among participants with HbA1c 6·8% or higher, or both HbA1c less than 6·8% and Short Form Health Survey (SF-36) general health score of 48 or more (2101 [86%] of 2451 participants in the testing dataset; 167 [16%] of 1046 primary outcome events for intervention vs 205 [19%] of 1055 for control, absolute risk reduction of 3·46%, 95% CI 0·21-6·73%, p=0·038) By contrast, participants with HbA1c less than 6·8% and baseline SF-36 general health score of less than 48 (350 [14%] of 2451 participants in the testing data; 27 [16%] of 171 primary outcome events for intervention vs 15 [8%] of 179 primary outcome events for control) had an absolute risk increase of the primary outcome of 7·41% (0·60 to 14·22, p=0·003).

Interpretation: Look AHEAD participants with moderately or poorly controlled diabetes (HbA1c 6·8% or higher) and subjects with well controlled diabetes (HbA1c less than 6·8%) and good self-reported health (85% of the overall study population) averted cardiovascular events from a behavioural intervention aimed at weight loss. However, 15% of participants with well controlled diabetes and poor self-reported general health experienced negative effects that rendered the overall study outcome neutral. HbA1c and a short questionnaire on general health might identify people with type 2 diabetes likely to derive benefit from an intensive lifestyle intervention aimed at weight loss.

Funding: None.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cardiovascular Diseases / etiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / complications*
  • Disease Management
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Machine Learning
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Weight Loss
  • Weight Reduction Programs*