Published: 28-02-2023 13:11 | Updated: 28-02-2023 16:37

Childhood obesity linked to increased risk of different forms of diabetes in adulthood

Photo: Getty Images

Child obesity is linked to increased risk of developing diabetes in adulthood, both autoimmune forms of diabetes and different forms of type 2 diabetes, a new study published in Diabetologia reports. The risk of developing the most insulin-resistant form of diabetes is, for example, three times as high in children with obesity.

Diabetes affects some seven per cent of the adult population and is one of the world’s fasted growing diseases. It has traditionally been divided into two subgroups – type 1 and type 2 diabetes – but research suggests that this is a simplification.

In 2018, a Swedish study identified five subgroups of adult-onset diabetes, characterised by auto-immunity, severe insulin deficiency, serious insulin resistance, overweight and advanced age.

Yuxia Wei, doctoral student at KI. Photo: Jingwei Zhao

One way the researchers say that the relevance of these subgroups can be highlighted is to examine if the influence of known risk factors for diabetes differs between the proposed diabetes types.

“Our study is one of the first attempts to find this out,” says the study’s first author Yuxia Wei, doctoral student at the Institute of Environmental Medicine. “Childhood obesity has been linked to several chronic diseases, but has never been studied in relation to the recently proposed diabetes subgroups.”

Wanted to investigate the effect of child obesity

The purpose of the present study was therefore to see if the effect of childhood obesity differs. The researchers used a method called Mendelian randomisation, which uses genetic information to study the correlation between an environmental risk factor and disease risk while taking into account the impact of other risk factors.

Basing their analysis on genetic data from over 400,000 participants in a biobank called UK Biobank, the researchers compared children who considered themselves larger than other children with children who rated their weight as normal.

The results showed that overweight/obesity in childhood was linked to a 62 percent higher risk of autoimmune diabetes, a doubling of the risk of diabetes characterised by insulin deficiency, almost a tripling of the risk of the most insulin-resistant form of diabetes and a seven-times higher risk of the form of diabetes primarily characterised by overweight. 

“Our analyses show that children who are larger than others are more likely to develop four of the five proposed new subgroups of adult-onset diabetes,” says Wei. “In other words, obesity in childhood seems to be a risk factor in effectively all types of adult diabetes, with the exception of age-related diabetes. This underscores how important it is to prevent obesity in children since it can have lasting effects on their future health.”

The study was a collaboration among researchers at Karolinska Institutet, Bristol University (UK) and Sun Yat-Sen University (China).


"Childhood adiposity and novel subtypes of adult-onset diabetes: a Mendelian randomisation and genome-wide genetic correlation study", Yuxia Wei, Tom G Richardsson, Yiqiang Zhan, Sofia Carlsson, Diabetologia, online 27 februari 2023, doi: 10.1007/s00125-023-05883-x