How Low Birth Weight May Up Diabetes Risk

Lower birth weight may increase the risk for type 2 diabetes in adults with unhealthy adult habits

While it is already known that an unhealthy lifestyle can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, that risk may increase even more depending on birth weight.

A new study found that a low birth weight combined with an unhealthy lifestyle as an adult may increase the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.

"This is of critical importance in the developing countries undergoing rapid [transitions] from traditional to Western lifestyles, such as China and India," said lead study author Yanping Li, PhD, of the department of nutrition at Harvard's TH Chan School of Medicine, in a press release. "The prevalence of the Western dietary pattern, cigarette smoking, sedentary activities, obesity, and diabetes has been increasing dramatically, and low birth weight is still highly prevalent (around 17 percent in developing countries)."

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the hormone insulin can't transport sugar to the body's cells efficiently.If left untreated, complications may include heart disease, kidney failure, blindness and damaged nerves.

Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include obesity, lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, family history, smoking and low birth weight.

According to the International Diabetes Foundation, about 5 million people worldwide died from the disease in 2014 and almost 400 million are currently living with the disease.

Dr. Li and team looked at about 150,000 patients between the ages of 20 and 30.

During the study period, 11,709 of these patients were diagnosed type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Li and team found that 22 percent of these new diagnoses could be attributed to a lower birth weight alone, 59 percent to an unhealthy lifestyle alone and 18 percent to the interaction between the two.

According to Dr. Li and team, low birth weight could contribute to diabetes as the baby fights for survival with a lack of resources.

This could lead a baby to grow into an adult that is ill prepared for "exposure to an affluent environment later in life."

"Most cases of type 2 diabetes could be prevented by the adoption of a healthier lifestyle, but these findings suggest that efforts focused on early life development, such as improving nutrition for pregnant women, could prevent additional cases," said senior study author Lu Qi, PhD, in a press release.

This study was published July 21 in the journal the BMJ.

The National Institutes for Health, Boston Obesity Nutrition Research Center, United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation and American Heart Association funded this research.

No conflicts of interest were disclosed.