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Famine Might Lead to Diabetes Generations Later

Prenatal exposure to famine might increase the risk of both hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes for individuals of the next generation, says a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Data from Great Famine of China

Researchers from Brown University and China’s Harbin Medical University came together to analyse data obtained from hundreds of families who were afflicted by famine that persisted in China from 1959 to 1961—starvation does not only impact on the people directly exposed to it, but it might also lead to a greater risk of developing hyperglycemia and diabetes in the subsequent generation.

Hyperglycemia and Famine

Hyperglycemia is a condition characterised by an abnormally high blood glucose level; it is considered an important sign of diabetes. It appears that it is linked with severe starvation, as researchers have linked exposure to the dreadful famine that quickly became widespread in 20th-Century China, affecting over thousands of lives, with increased risks of hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. The bitter consequences of the critical lack of food were found to have extended to children who were born much later, when the famine had long subsided: the next generation also showed signs of greater likelihood of having hyperglycemia. It is to be noted that some of the participants were gestated during the period of extreme famine while other were conceived after; furthermore, some were the progeny of two, one, or no parents who went through the horrific experience.

“By studying these families we could determine multiple-generational exposure to nutritional factors and genetic interactions that occur due to famine,” says co-author Dr. Simin Liu from Brown University.

The stats

  1. Of the 983 individuals who gestated during the famine, 31.2% had hyperglycemia, and 11.2% has developed type 2 diabetes.
  2. Of the 1,085 people gestated just after it, 16.9% of them had hyperglycemia, and 5.6% of them were diabetic (type 2).
  3. Utero famine exposure is associated with 1.93 and 1.75 greater chances of hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes respectively.
  4. The increased risks of hyperglycemia for the second generation were 5.7% for those with no parents exposed to the famine, and almost double for those with fathers exposed to it (10.0% increase), and 10.6% for those with mothers affected by the famine.

Famine linked with metabolic disorders

The researchers explain that previous findings show that famine might be the cause of this type of health hazards involving the metabolism. For instance, exposure to famine might lead to modifications in both the endocrine system and in prenatal gene expression pertaining to the reproductive system.

“Genetic, epigenetic reprogramming, and subsequent gene-diet interaction are all possible explanations,” explains Liu. “By establishing this Chinese famine cohort of families, we hope to conduct a much more comprehensive and in-depth assessment of the whole genome and epigenome along with metabolic biomarkers of these participants moving forward.”


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