Very Stressful Family Events in Childhood can Increase Risk of Type 1 Diabetes

by Barbara Hewitt on April 14, 2015

Serious life events in childhood, such as death or illness in the family, divorce, separation, a new child or adult in the family, can triple the risk of subsequently developing type 1 diabetes, new research has found.

The study in Sweden looked at whether psychological stress in terms of experiences of serious life events along with parental perception of parenting stress and lack of social support, during the child’s first 14 years of life, may be a risk factor for developing the condition.

diabetes researchResearchers from Linköping University invited all families with babies born between 01 October 1997 and 30 September 1999 in southeast Sweden to participate. The study included 10,495 families participating in at least one of four data collections carried out when the children were between two and 14 years of age.

None of the children had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when the study began but 58 children were subsequently diagnosed with the condition. Family psychological stress was measured via questionnaires given to the parents assessing serious life events, parenting stress, parental worries and the parent’s social support.

The authors found that childhood experience of a serious life event was associated with a higher risk of future diagnosis of type 1 diabetes with children experiencing such events almost three times more likely to develop it than those who had not, even after adjustment for confounding factors such as genetic predisposition, age at entry into the study, the parents’ education level and whether the mother worked at least 50% of full time hours before the child’s birth.

‘Psychological stress should be treated as a potential risk factor, and should be examined further in future epidemiological studies, for instance in relation to genetic risk,’ said the lead researchers Maria Nygren, Professor Johnny Ludvigsson, and Dr Anneli Frostell.

One possibility linking such events with developing type 1 diabetes is suggested by the beta cell stress hypothesis, which proposes that the child’s experience of a serious life event could contribute to beta cell stress via increased insulin resistance as well as increased insulin demands due to the physiological stress response, including elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Another possible mechanism linking stress to immunological diseases is a more general imbalance in the immune system as a result of chronic stress. This imbalance may contribute to an immunological reaction against the insulin producing beta cells.

‘Consistent with several previous retrospective studies, this first prospective study concludes that the experience of a serious life event, reasonably indicating psychological stress, during the first 14 years of life may be a risk factor for developing type 1 diabetes,’ the report says.

‘The current study examined serious life events experienced at any time before diagnosis; further studies are thus needed to determine when in the autoimmune process psychological stress may contribute, and in association with which other factors such as genetic factors, infections or other periods of pronounced beta cell stress,’ it explained.

‘As experience of stressful life events cannot be avoided, children and their parents should get adequate support to cope with these events to avoid their consequences, which could include medical issues,’ it adds.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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