Early signs of adulthood type 2 diabetes can be seen in children as young as eight, research suggests.
Scientists analysed 4,000 people who had a genetic risk of the condition, tracking them from the age of eight until they turned 25.
They found the children had less ‘good cholesterol’ than peers not deemed at risk, and levels dropped further as they aged.
The researchers who carried out the study at the University of Bristol branded their findings ‘remarkable’ – but said it is not hard proof the youngsters will go on to develop the condition if they have less good cholesterol.
Early signs of adulthood type 2 diabetes can be seen in children as young as eight, decades before it is likely to be diagnosed, research suggests. The findings could lead to better interventions to stop the disease from developing
Type 2 diabetes is most often diagnosed in middle age or later, with its symptoms slowly developing over many years.
The prevalence of the condition is rapidly increasing worldwide, with cases having more than quadrupled in the past 35 years.
The causes of type 2 diabetes are complex – but many patients have at least one close family member who also has the disease.
Studies have identified at least 150 DNA variations thought to play a role in whether someone will or won’t develop type 2 diabetes.
IS TYPE 2 DIABETES IN OUR DNA?
The causes of type 2 diabetes are complex, resulting from a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors.
Studies have identified at least 150 DNA variations associated with type 2 diabetes – some of which reduce the risk, some of which increase the risk, and many of which the effects are unknown.
The majority of genetic variations associated with type 2 diabetes are thought to act by subtly changing the amount, timing, and location of gene activity.
These changes in expression affect genes involved in many aspects of type 2 diabetes, including the bodies production of insulin.
Genetic variations likely act together with health and lifestyle factors to influence an individual’s overall risk of type 2 diabetes.
All of these factors are related, directly or indirectly, to the body’s ability to produce and respond to insulin.
Health conditions that predispose to the disease include overweight or obesity, insulin resistance, prediabetes, and a form of diabetes called gestational diabetes that occurs during pregnancy.
Lifestyle factors including smoking, a poor diet, and physical inactivity also increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Source: National Institutes of Health
But this also depends on lifestyle choices, with obesity and inactivity both known to drive the condition.
The study involved participants who were part of the Children of the 90s study – a database established in Bristol in the early 1990s.
All the children were healthy and free of type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases, the researchers said.
Researchers analysed 162 pieces of genetic information known to effect the chances of type 2 diabetes in adulthood in some way.
They combined this with 200 measures of many small molecules in a blood sample, known as metabolics, to try and identify signs of type 2 diabetes.
Data was taken once in childhood, at eight years old, twice in adolescence, aged 16 and 18 years old, and once in young adulthood, aged 25 years.
They found levels of HDL cholesterol were reduced at age eight, while inflammatory glycoprotein acetyls and amino acids were elevated by the mid to late teens.
These metabolic features could be targeted to prevent young people from going on to develop type 2 diabetes in the future, the researchers said.
Dr Joshua Bell, who co-led the research, said: ‘It’s remarkable that we can see signs of adult diabetes in the blood from such a young age – this is about 50 years before it’s commonly diagnosed.
‘This is not a clinical study; nearly all participants were free of diabetes and most will not go on to develop it.
‘This is about liability to disease and how genetics can tell us something about how the disease develops.’
He added: ‘If we want to prevent diabetes, we need to know how it starts. Genetics can help with that.
‘But our aim here is to learn how diabetes develops, not to predict who will and will not develop it.’
The findings are being presented at this year’s European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) Annual Meeting in Barcelona and have not been published yet.
Dr Elizabeth Robertson, from Diabetes UK which partly funded the study, said the findings were ‘important’.
She said: ‘In the future, insights like this could mean we’re able to spot who is at a higher risk and – most importantly – find ways to intervene to reduce this risk much earlier in a person’s life than we’re able to today.
‘This means we could potentially prevent more cases of type 2 diabetes from developing at all – which has become critical, given 12.3million people in the UK are at risk of the condition.
‘Type 2 diabetes is complex and, although we can’t do anything about our genetic risk, there are things you can do to help lower your risk of developing the condition that include maintaining a healthy weight, eating well and moving more.’