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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Harvard Finds Low Birth Weight Combined with Unhealthy Adult Lifestyle May Increase Type 2 Diabetes Risk

People who are a low weight at birth and have unhealthy habits as adults, such as eating nutritionally poor diets or smoking, may have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people born at an average weight who live similar lifestyles, according to a new study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In the first study to comprehensively assess how early development interacts with adult behavior to influence type 2 diabetes risk, the researchers found that 18 percent of cases were attributable to the combined effect of low birth weight and unhealthy adult lifestyles.

“Most cases of type 2 diabetes could be prevented by the adoption of a healthier lifestyle, but these findings suggest that efforts focused on early life development, such as improving nutrition for pregnant women, could prevent additional cases,” said Dr. Lu Qi, associate professor in the department of nutrition at Harvard Chan School and Channing Division of Network Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the study’s senior author.

The study appeared online July 21 in BMJ.

Diabetes has become a worldwide epidemic, with 4.9 million attributable deaths in 2014 and an estimated 387 million people living with the disease, according to the International Diabetes Federation. Type 2 diabetes, which represents 85-95 percent of all cases, has been linked to both unhealthy lifestyles and negative early life development factors, including low birth weight (defined as less than 5.5 pounds for this study) and prenatal exposure to malnutrition.

While previous studies have looked at how adult lifestyles may modify early life risks, few have analyzed the joint effects of early life and unhealthy lifestyle factors on type 2 diabetes risk. Read more