Causal Link Found Between Childhood Obesity and Adult-Onset Diabetes

Childhood obesity is a risk factor for four of the five subtypes of adult-onset diabetes, emphasizing the importance of childhood weight control, according to a collaborative study from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, the University of Bristol (England), and Sun Yat-Sen University in China.

“Our finding is that children who have a bigger body size than the average have increased risks of developing almost all subtypes of adult-onset diabetes, except for the mild age-related subtype,” lead author Yuxia Wei, a PhD student from the Karolinska Institutet, said in an interview. “This tells us that it is important to prevent overweight/obesity in children and important for pediatric patients to lose weight if they have already been overweight/obese,” she added, while acknowledging that the study did not examine whether childhood weight loss would prevent adult-onset diabetes.

The study, published online in Diabetologia, used Mendelian randomization (MR), with data from genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of childhood obesity and the five subtypes of adult-onset diabetes: latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA, proxy for severe autoimmune diabetes), severe insulin-deficient diabetes (SIDD), severe insulin-resistant diabetes (SIRD), mild obesity-related diabetes (MOD), and mild age-related diabetes (MARD). MR is “a rather new but commonly used and established technique that uses genetic information to study the causal link between an environmental risk factor and a disease, while accounting for the influence of other risk factors,” Ms. Wei explained.

To identify genetic variations associated with obesity, the study used statistics from a GWAS of 453,169 Europeans who self-reported body size at age 10 years in the UK Biobank study. After adjustment for sex, age at baseline, type of genotyping array, and month of birth, they identified 295 independent single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) for childhood body size.

The researchers also used data from two GWAS of European adults with newly diagnosed diabetes, or without diabetes, to identify SNPs in 8,581 individuals with LADA, 3,937 with SIDD, 3,874 with SIRD, 4,118 with MOD, and 5,605 with MARD.

They then used MR to assess the association of genetically predicted childhood body size with the different diabetes subtypes.

The analysis showed that, with the exception of MARD, all other adult-onset diabetes subtypes were causally associated with childhood obesity, with odds ratio of 1.62 for LADA, 2.11 for SIDD, 2.76 for SIRD, and 7.30 for MOD. However, a genetic correlation between childhood obesity and adult-onset diabetes was found only for MOD, and no other subtypes. “The weak genetic correlation between childhood obesity and adult diabetes indicates that the genes promoting childhood adiposity are largely distinct from those promoting diabetes during adulthood,” noted the authors.

The findings indicate that “childhood body size and MOD may share some genetic mutations,” added Ms. Wei. “That is to say, some genes may affect childhood body size and MOD simultaneously.” But the shared genes do demonstrate the causal effect of childhood obesity on MOD, she explained. The causal effect is demonstrated through the MR analysis.

Additionally, they noted that while “the link between childhood body size and SIRD is expected, given the adverse effects of adiposity on insulin sensitivity … the smaller OR for SIRD than for MOD suggests that non–obesity-related and/or nongenetic effects may be the main factors underlying the development of SIRD.” Asked for her theory on how childhood body size could affect diabetes subtypes characterized by autoimmunity (LADA) or impaired insulin secretion (SIDD), Ms. Wei speculated that “excess fat around the pancreas can affect insulin secretion and that impaired insulin secretion is also an important problem for LADA.”

Another theory is that it might be “metabolic memory,” suggested Jordi Merino, PhD, of the University of Copenhagen and Harvard University, Boston, who was not involved in the research. “Being exposed to obesity during childhood will tell the body to produce more insulin/aberrant immunity responses later in life.”

Dr. Merino said that, overall, the study’s findings “highlight the long and lasting effect of early-life adiposity and metabolic alterations on different forms of adult-onset diabetes,” adding that this is the first evidence “that childhood adiposity is not only linked to the more traditional diabetes subtype consequence of increased insulin resistance but also subtypes driven by autoimmunity or impaired insulin secretion.” He explained that genetics is “only part of the story” driving increased diabetes risk and “we do not know much about other factors interacting with genetics, but the results from this Mendelian randomization analysis suggest that childhood obesity is a causal factor for all adult-onset diabetes subtypes. Identifying causal factors instead of associative factors is critical to implement more targeted preventive and therapeutic strategies.”

He acknowledged, “There is a long path for these results to be eventually implemented in clinical practice, but they can support early weight control strategies for preventing different diabetes subtypes.”

The study was supported by the Swedish Research Council, Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare, and Novo Nordisk Foundation. Ms. Wei received a scholarship from the China Scholarship Council. One coauthor is an employee of GlaxoSmithKline. Dr. Merino reported no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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