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Diabetes

26 June 2020

Signs of future diabetes may already lurk at the age of 8

Early signs of being more susceptible to adult type 2 diabetes can already be spotted in children before they're 10 years old, according to new research.

  • Researchers have found that already at the age of eight signs can indicate who is more susceptible to type 2 diabetes
  • Different genetic scores were taken into account in children over several years 
  • Subtle patterns of metabolic changes were discernible early on, even though symptoms only showed up decades later

Healthy eating and an active lifestyle are usually recommended from a young age to set the foundation for a healthy adult life and steering clear of type 2 diabetes, among other things.

Now, new research published in the journal Diabetes Care (online version not available at time of publication), shows that, besides following a healthy lifestyle, there are more ways you can try to avoid type 2 diabetes later in life. There were indications of the condition in children as young as eight years old, decades before diabetes is normally diagnosed.

Genetic risk score considered

According to a news release, the research looked at the effect of a genetic risk score for developing type 2 diabetes as an adult. This score is based on metabolism measured through blood samples taken from study participants at the ages eight, 16, 18 and 25 years.

There were over 4 000 participants who were tracked since the early 1990s in a health study called "Children of the 90s" at the University of Bristol.

The genetic information from the various participants was combined with metabolomics, a process that involves measuring many small molecules in a blood sample to try and determine patterns that can predict the development of type 2 diabetes.

All participants were generally free of type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases at the start of the study. But as the years went on, cholesterol levels in some participants started to rise and some inflammation and amino acids also started to increase in those 16 and 18 years of age. The differences started to widen as the years went by.

Why could this study be vital?

While type 2 diabetes is a metabolic condition that can be managed by making healthy lifestyle changes, sticking to a healthy weight and monitoring your blood glucose level carefully, it is still important to try to prevent it if you might be at risk, especially as diabetes is one of the most common comorbidities in those South Africans who got severe Covid-19.

Professor Joshua Bell, one of the leading investigators, stated that they knew diabetes is something that doesn’t simply develop overnight, and can be acquired as a result of lifestyle choices during your early life.

But what they didn’t know is that the first signs of the disease can appear at a very early age. According to Professor Bell, this discovery wouldn’t have been possible without the study that took place in the 1990s.

"Diabetes is most common at an older age, but we see signs of disease susceptibility very early on – about 50 years before it's usually diagnosed. Knowing what these early signs look like widens our window of opportunity to intervene much earlier and stop diabetes before it becomes harmful," he said in a news release.

We can’t see these markers – but how can we spot the risk early enough?

While it’s not possible to see into the future, there are some visible risk factors in children that can be an indication that type 2 diabetes may be part of their future. These include:

  • Their weight
  • A family history of diabetes
  • High blood pressure

Lower your child’s risk for type 2 diabetes

Making the healthiest possible lifestyle choices and being aware of your overall family health may help. Here are some tips:

  • Encourage regular physical activity in children, especially now that team sports at schools are not taking place yet. Let them play outside, dance around in the house or go for long family walks.
  • Help your child maintain a healthy weight. If you're unsure about your child’s diet, consult with your paediatrician or a registered dietitian.
  • Establish healthy eating patterns from an early age. Eating excess calories over time can lead to obesity, which increases your child’s risk for type 2 diabetes.

READ | Obesity biggest diabetes type 2 risk factor

READ | South Africans consume alarming amounts of sugar and carbs

READ | A plant-based diet may lower the risk of diabetes type 2

Image credit: Cottonbro from Pexels

 

Ask the Expert

Diabetes expert

Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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