by: Jennifer Willson
Diabetes Monitor Columnist
Publication Date: 3/23/2010
Ever since Sir Harold Percival Himsworth distinguished type 1 diabetes from type 2, doctors and parents alike have been racing to learn more about the disease and why kids are its primary target. But despite landmark advancements in treatment and care, there are still many questions surrounding the causes of type 1 diabetes in children.
Scientists do know that the majority of type 1 diabetes cases begin between infancy and young adulthood, when the patient’s immune system starts attacking insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. It’s not yet clear exactly what causes a child’s auto-immune response to go awry. But research points to some combination of genetics and environmental triggers.
How Genetics Plays a Role in Type 1 Diabetes
Diabetes in children is believed to be at least partially hereditary, and scientists have honed in on specific genes that may predispose someone to type 1 diabetes. So a man with type 1 diabetes has a 1 in 17 chance of passing it on to his child. A woman with type 1 who gives birth before the age of 25 has a 1 in 25 chance. That chance is lessened if the mother is older than 25.
Studies also show that if you developed type 1 diabetes before turning 11, the risk is doubled for your children. But as staggering as these odds may sound, it’s important to note that 90 percent of people with type 1 diabetes have no other family members with the disease whatsoever.
Possible Environmental Triggers
Because genes don’t seem to be the only culprit, researchers are exploring a number factors that could trigger type 1 diabetes in children, including :
* Early Diet: The disease is less common in children who were breastfed, as well as those who started eating solid foods at a later age.
* Viruses: Diabetes in children could be sparked by a unique susceptibility to a virus that doesn’t effect most other kids.
* Cold Weather: More cases of diabetes in children develop during the winter months.
A recent study specifically cited a higher incidence of type 1 diabetes in colder, darker countries, where children get less exposure to sunlight. Since the body needs sunlight to process vitamin D, this backs up earlier studies suggesting that getting adequate amounts of vitamin D may help prevent type 1 diabetes in children.
Testing and Early Intervention for Diabetes in Children
Currently, doctors can assess a child’s potential risk for diabetes only through genetic tests, measuring response to glucose or the amount of insulin antibodies or islet-cell antibodies in the blood. But scientists are making strides in understanding how the disease develops and detecting it early.
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation is looking at how a child’s auto-immune response may signal the development of diabetes long before symptoms arise. Their research shows that immune cells in people at risk for type 1 diabetes start to react differently with proteins in the beta cells of the pancreas, and over time this could trigger diabetes.
If it sounds complicated, don’t worry–it is. But the key takeaway is that doctors could use these findings to one day test for type 1 diabetes in children at a very early stage. Or even better, develop some kind of early preventative treatment.