What could childhood stress and type 1 diabetes have in common?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Stress in childhood could triple risk of type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes develops when the immune system goes awry. But what triggers the disease to affect children is unknown. Now researchers have found a link between psychological stress and the development of diabetes.

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According to the research published iDiabetologia (the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes), psychological stress in childhood related to any number of events before age fourteen was associated with tirple the risk of type 1 diabetes.

The study

Maria Nygren, a PhD student at Linköping University, Sweden and colleagues looked at what environmental factors could contribute to type 1 and type 1 diabetes in children.

Data for the study was extracted from questionnaires that included 10,495 families with infants born between October 1997 and September 1999 in Southeast Sweden.

Families were asked about life events including divorce, job loss, physical trauma such as accidents or deaths that may have occurred. Children were tracked up to age-14.

The investigators noted the risk of developin g type 1 diabetes from stress in childhood is similar to other environmental influences such as infection with enterovirus or nutritional factors. The scientists emphasize that though psychological events may contribute to the disease, heredity remains the strongest influence.

"When comparing single risk factors, heredity is still much more important. In our study sample, the increase in risk for a child from a family in which another first-degree member has type 1 diabetes (hazard ratio 12) is about four times higher than the increase in risk associated with [a serious life event]."

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How stress could lead to diabetes

The study authors say it's possible that adverse life events when we're young could lead to insulin resistance from elevated levels of the stress-hormone cortisol.

Another possible explanation is that stress could trigger the autoimmune response that leads to attack on beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.

Over the course of the study 58 children developed type 1 diabetes. When the researchers adjusted for other factors including a family member with diabetes they found the chances a child would develop the disease was tripled. When they adjusted for body mass index the risk was five times greater.

The study may help explain why everyone with a genetic predisposition from having the HLA genes does not develop type 1 diabetes. he authors say it is "most logical" that there are environmental factors that trigger the destruction of beta cells.

Other suggestions from past studies include a combination of events that occur early in life could contribute to T1D including viral infection, exposure to cows milk and gluten in food.

Why the finding is important

Type 1 diabetes is on the rise in developed countries but why it is happening remains unknown. It may be possible to prevent the disease by continuing to identify environmental links to T1D that can be controlled including ensuring children have access to support when stress happens early in life.

Related:
Skin cells could hold secret to type 1 diabetes
Surprising study shows one in three people with diabetes continue to produce insulin
Blood pressure pill could "cure" type 1 diabetes

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