April 10, 2015
2 min read

Serious childhood life events may triple risk for type 1 diabetes

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Psychological stress during childhood may be a risk factor for type 1 diabetes, according to research in Diabetologia.

In a population-based prospective study, researchers estimated that a child’s risk for developing type 1 diabetes before age 14 years was three times higher if the child experienced a serious life event — including death or illness, a new child or adult in the family or family conflict — than if he or she had not. The increase in risk is comparable to other risk factors, such as birth weight, infant nutrition and enterovirus infection, according to researchers.

“Our results give us strong reason to believe that psychological stress probably plays a part somewhere in the immunological process leading to the onset of type 1 diabetes,” Maria Nygran, a PhD student in the department of clinical and experimental medicine at Linkoping University in Sweden, told Endocrine Today.

Maria Nygren

Maria Nygren

Nygren and colleagues analyzed data from 10,495 participants in the All Babies in Southeast Sweden (ABIS) study, which included families with babies born between Oct. 1, 1997, and Sept. 30, 1999, participating in at least one of four data collection periods carried out when the children were aged 2 to 14 years. The participants had not been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when they entered the study.

Participating parents completed questionnaires when children reached four different age ranges (2-3 years, 5-6 years, 8 years and 10-13 years) that assessed serious life events, parenting stress, parental worries and the parent’s social support.

After adjustment for heredity of type 1 diabetes and the child’s age when entering the study, childhood experience of a serious life event was associated with a higher risk of future diagnosis of type 1 diabetes (HR = 3; 95% CI, 1.6-5.6). The result was still valid when controlling for heredity of type 2 diabetes, size for gestational age, the parents’ education level and whether the mother worked at least 50% of full time before the child’s birth (HR = 2.8; 95% CI, 1.5-5.4), and when childhood BMI was added to the model (HR = 5; 95% CI, 2.3-10.7).

Divorce (“new family structure”) and “conflict at home” for parents were both associated with a higher risk for a child’s diabetes diagnosis, but the associations were no longer significant after adjusting for heredity, age at entry, BMI and other confounding factors, according to researchers.

Researchers also did not find an increased risk for diabetes related to parenting stress, parental worries or social support.

“Even though we found an increase in risk in the group of children who experienced one or more serious life events, the absolute risk to develop type 1 diabetes is still small,” Nygren said.

The results suggest more research is needed on psychological stress as a risk factor for type 1 diabetes and other diseases, according to researchers.

“Psychological stress should be investigated in more detail concerning where in the immunological process it may be important, and what other environmental factors may interact with stress,” Nygren said. – by Regina Schaffer

Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.