Adults with a lower weight at birth were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes at a younger age — as well as at a lower body-mass index (BMI, a measure of body weight that takes height into account) — in a new study published in the journal Diabetic Medicine.
To many of us, a person’s birth weight might seem like a trivial detail in a birth announcement. But a large body of research now shows that having a low birth weight can have lifelong health consequences. Past research has shown that a low birth weight is linked to a higher risk for prediabetes — elevated blood glucose that doesn’t reach the threshold for diabetes — in adolescence. Other ways that a low birth weight may affect your health include potentially a higher risk for coronary artery disease (CAD) and stroke later in life, even for members of a generation — adults born in the 1950s in the United States — that saw a low rate of infant mortality, a common marker of overall infant health.
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For the latest study, researchers used data from a record of births in Scotland between 1952 and 1966, which included about 48,000 births. They adjusted these infants’ birth weight for gestational age, and compared the numbers with later records of when these adults were diagnosed with diabetes, if they developed type 2 diabetes later in life. In doing so, the researchers adjusted for numerous other factors that can influence a person’s risk for type 2 diabetes — in an attempt to figure out how birth weight, by itself, affects a person’s diabetes risk.
Lower birth weight linked to younger age at type 2 diabetes diagnosis
The researchers found that lower birth weights were linked, on average, to a younger age at the time of a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. What’s more, they found that this link was consistent — for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) in lower birth weight, study participants were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at an average of 293 days earlier in age. They also tended to be diagnosed with diabetes at a lower BMI, with every kilogram of lower birth weight linked to developing diabetes at an average BMI that was 1.29 units lower (BMI is measured as milligrams per meter squared).
But there was no significant link seen between birth weight and the rate of diabetes progression — indicating that the effect of birth weight on metabolic health may be somewhat limited, which is good news for anyone with a lower birth weight. The researchers wrote that because a lower birth weight was linked to diabetes at a lower BMI, birth weight most likely has an effect on the function of insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells, rather than on insulin resistance throughout the body.
“For the first time, we have shown that a lower birthweight is associated with younger onset of [type 2 diabetes], with those with lower birthweight also being slimmer at diagnosis,” the researchers concluded. “Further studies, including the measurement of beta-cell function and insulin resistance at diagnosis, are warranted.”
Want to learn more about pregnancy with diabetes? Read “Pregnancy and Type 1 Diabetes” and “Treatment for Gestational Diabetes: Once You’re Diagnosed.”