Study links childhood stress to development of type 1 diabetes

Children who experience serious life events such as a family bereavement are almost three times more likely to develop type 1 diabetes, researchers say

Children who experience a serious life event such as a death in the family or parental divorce are almost three times more likely to develop type 1 diabetes (T1D), a population-based study in Sweden has found. 

The causes of T1D are unknown, but alongside genetic predisposition, several environmental factors such as viral infection, birthweight and chronic stress have been proposed as risk factors. 

The All Babies in Southeast Sweden study examined 10,495 families to determine whether psychological stress relating to serious life events during a child’s first year 14 years of life may be a risk factor for developing T1D. 

The researchers from Linkoping University in Sweden found children who experienced such events, also including illness in the family, a new child or adult in the family, or family conflict, were almost three times more likely to develop T1D even after adjusting for confounding factors such as size for gestational age. 

They found the increase in risk caused by serious events is comparable to other environmental factors such as birthweight and infant nutrition, but when comparing single risk factors, genetic predisposition is still much more important. 

The study, published in Diabetologia, concluded that further research is needed to determine when in the autoimmune process stress contributes to T1D development. 

Diabetes UK research communications manager Richard Elliott said the research adds to our understanding of the potential role of stress during childhood as a trigger.

But he added: ‘It is important to note that, while instances of stress might coincide with or even contribute to a diabetes diagnosis, it is highly unlikely that such events would be the only cause, and having a history of T1D in your family is still a much more important risk factor.’

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