Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) have a quadrupled risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a new study has found.
It was already known the common condition – which affects an estimated one in every five women – can cause insulin resistance, a risk factor for the potentially deadly disease.
But the link with PCOS – which causes irregular periods, acne, weight gain and fertility issues – and the metabolic condition has not been thoroughly researched.
Now, scientists have quantified the increased risk and discovered that women with the ovary-related illness are on average diagnosed with diabetes four years earlier than other patients.
Women with PCOS have four times the risk of developing diabetes, because many develop insulin resistance, a new study discovered (file photo)
In the study, the average age of a diabetes diagnosis for those with PCOS was 31.
‘Many women with PCOS are obese, but the risk for the development of diabetes in PCOS is unknown,’ explained one of the study’s authors, Dorte Glintborg, from the Odense University Hospital in Denmark.
‘The increased risk of developing T2D [type 2 diabetes] in PCOS is an important finding.
‘Diabetes may develop at a young age and screening for diabetes is important, especially in women who are obese and have PCOS.’
WHAT IS POLYCYSTIC OVARY SYNDROME?
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition that affects how a woman’s ovaries work.
The three main features of PCOS are:
- Irregular periods – which means the ovaries don’t regularly release eggs (ovulation)
- Excess androgen – high levels of ‘male hormones’ in the body, which may cause physical signs such as excess facial or body hair
- Polycystic ovaries – the ovaries become enlarged and contain many fluid-filled sacs (follicles) which surround the eggs (it’s important to note that, despite the name, if you have PCOS you don’t actually have cysts)
Symptoms include regular periods or no periods, fertility problems, excessive hair, weight gain, thinning hair on the head and acne.
The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but it often runs in families.
Source: NHS Choices
Key findings of the study
The team studied more than 19,500 pre-menopausal Danish women with a diagnosis of PCOS.
The women with PCOS were then compared with other females of a similar age who did not have PCOS, nor a previous diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
The researchers found that women with PCOS were four times more likely to develop diabetes compared to their counterparts who did not have the condition.
They also discovered that higher body mass index, insulin and glucose levels and triglycerides (fat in the blood) were also associated with development of diabetes.
Exactly how can PCOS lead to diabetes?
Insulin is a hormone that controls sugar levels in the body. When women with PCOS become resistant to the action of insulin, the body tries to cope by producing more of it.
This causes glucose to build up in the blood, which can cause high blood sugar levels. This can lead to the development of type 2 diabetes, which occurs when the pancreas cannot secrete the insulin required to maintain normal blood glucose levels.
High levels of insulin cause the ovaries to produce too much testosterone, which interferes with normal ovulation.
Insulin resistance can also lead to weight gain, which can make PCOS symptoms worse, because having excess fat causes the body to produce even more insulin.
Diabetes can cause complications including kidney failure, heart disease and stroke. As type 2 diabetes usually gets worse, you may eventually need medication – usually tablets – to keep your blood glucose at normal levels.
There’s no cure for PCOS. If you have the disorder and you are overweight, losing weight and eating a healthy, balanced diet can make some symptoms better, advises NHS Choices.
Medications are also available to treat symptoms such as excessive hair growth, irregular periods and fertility problems.