Contact: Soili Lehto, MD, PhD
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Growing up with a parent who has alcohol problems may greatly increase a man’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in later years, finds a new long-term study. The report appears in the November-December issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
About 9% of adults worldwide have diabetes, with prevalence increasing over the last few decades. In the U.S., 13% of adults have the disease, and 27% do if they’re 65 or older. (Most cases of diabetes are Type 2 rather than Type 1 in which the immune system goes awry to eliminate insulin production.)
The new study used a country-wide comprehensive child health record system in Finland, noting any mentions by school nurses or doctors of parental problems with alcohol or divorce of parents in the families of boys.
Baseline examinations when the male participants were 42 to 60 years old also included questionnaires asking if either parent had problems with alcohol or if their parents had divorced during their childhood. The researchers controlled for depression symptoms, several health-related measurements and lifestyle practices such as smoking and drinking alcohol, as well as the men’s sociodemographic backgrounds. Participants who reported they had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes by ages 42 to 60 were excluded from the final sample, which included 754 men.
Then, nearly 30 years later, the researchers checked a national database that shows diagnoses of Type 2 diabetes in Finland. Parental divorce had no relationship to whether or not a man became diabetic. But having a parent with alcohol problems tripled a man’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in later life, says study author Soili Lehto, MD, PhD, Professor in Psychiatry at the University of Oslo.
The stress of growing up amid parents’ alcohol problems may help explain why these sons are more prone to diabetes, she suggests. “Stress at a young age can lead to increased physical and psychological vulnerability to future stress,” says Lehto, so years later, when there’s stress on the job or in relationships, the biological stress system may be primed to respond in a way that raises blood sugar. Similar metabolic changes have been found in studies of children who were abused or neglected, she adds.
Physical changes during the pregnancies of heavy alcohol drinkers also might affect fetal metabolism in a way that promotes later diabetes—animal studies show prenatal exposure to alcohol impairs glucose tolerance, notes Lehto. She’s now working on a large-scale study to test whether this is also true in human beings.
And genetics may play a role. Heavy alcohol drinking contributes to weight gain, which promotes diabetes. Both Type 2 diabetes and alcoholism are partly genetic, so genes also may help explain why these men are more likely to develop diabetes, she adds.
Since her participant pool was fairly small, the findings need to be replicated with larger groups, Lehto cautions.
Even so, health clinicians and parents should take note: “They should be aware that parents who drink too much alcohol may be putting their kids at later risk, and they might decrease this risk by seeking help for possible drinking problems while raising children.”
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”