Premature Birth as a Risk Factor for Developing Type 1 Diabetes

Right now, about 1 in 10 adults lives with type 1 diabetes in the United States and other parts of the world. But we don’t nearly know as much about risk factors for type 1 diabetes as we do for type 2 diabetes (such as age, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, etc.). 

Past studies have shown a link between premature birth (meaning before the 37th week of gestation) and insulin resistance (where insulin action is less effective) early in life. But the risks of developing type 1 or 2 diabetes for the prematurely born had not been analyzed until recently.

Gestational age at birth and risk of developing diabetes

Two studies conducted in Sweden followed millions of people over several years after birth and tried to determine whether there was a link between premature birth and the onset of type 1 or 2 diabetes.

Both studies found that the prematurely born are at an increased risk of developing type 1 or 2 diabetes later in life

What can explain this increased risk

The development of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas occurs mainly during the third trimester and could be disrupted by a premature birth. This could hinder the number of cells, as well as their ability to function normally.

Another possible explanation is that the rapid catch-up growth that follows premature birth promotes fat stacking in the abdomen, which can cause insulin resistance.

So, prematurely born children and young adults have a higher risk of developing diabetes.

Premature birth then needs to be considered in the medical history to ensure the timely diagnosis and treatment of diabetes.

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References:

  • Crump, C., Sundquist, J., and Sundquist, K. (2019). Preterm Birth and Risk of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes: A National Cohort Study. Diabetologia, doi: 10.1007/s00125-019-05044-z. 
  • Khashan, A.S., Kenny, L.C., Lundholm C., et al. (2015). Gestational Age and Birth Weight and the Risk of Childhood Type 1 Diabetes: A Population-Based Cohort and Sibling Design Study. Diabetes Care, doi: 10.2337/dc15-0897.