Being born to a mother with diabetes during pregnancy is linked to a higher risk of developing a psychiatric disorder before age 40, according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Researchers have long been exploring the link between diabetes and mental health disorders, including more common diagnoses like depression as well as less common psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. But most of this research has focused on outcomes linked to having diabetes yourself, rather than being born to a mother with diabetes. The latest study included all types of diabetes during pregnancy, namely type 1, type 2, or gestational diabetes.
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Increased risk of various psychiatric disorders
In the new study, researchers based at Aarhus University in Denmark looked at data from all 2.4 million live births in the country between 1978 and 2016, as well as health records throughout life from these same people born during this period, up to age 39. At the time of the analysis, the median age of study participants was 19.0 years, and 151,208 of them (6.4%) had been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. The researchers found that overall, people born to a mother with diabetes — a total of 56,206 participants (2.3%) — were 15% more likely to develop any psychiatric disorder, compared to people born to a mother without diabetes. When it came to specific disorders, those born to a mother with diabetes were 55% more likely to develop schizophrenia, 22% more likely to develop an anxiety disorder, 29% more likely to have an intellectual disability, 16% more likely to have a developmental disorder, and 17% more likely to have a behavioral disorder (such as ADHD).
The researchers didn’t find any link between being born to a mother with diabetes and developing a substance use disorder, a mood disorder (such as depression or bipolar disorder), an eating disorder, or a personality disorder. For every disorder included in their analysis, researchers started follow-up of participants at the lowest possible age of diagnosis according to medical literature, but certainly didn’t fully capture the number of people with each disorder due to the limited follow-up period. In fact, some of the disorders included in the study are commonly diagnosed after age 19, the median age of study participants.
“Our findings expand the current literature by showing that maternal diabetes during pregnancy was associated with increased risks for psychiatric disorders overall and several specific psychiatric disorders,” the researchers wrote. They noted that the potential mechanisms involved in these risks may include greater oxidative stress and hypoxia (inadequate oxygen) in the uterine environment, and that more research is needed learn exactly how diabetes during pregnancy may lead to psychiatric problems in offspring — and how to potentially intervene to help prevent these problems.