The studies involve 17,000 children born in 1997-99 and their parents. In blood samples from the children, the scientists looked for two types of antibodies that occur in pre-stages of type 1 diabetes. At the same time, the parents responded to a questionnaire about the life situation within the family. The samples and the questionnaires were carried out on three occasions: at birth, at one year of age, and two and a half years of age. 250 maternity and child-health centers from southeastern Sweden participated.
The findings, now being presented in a doctoral dissertation in pediatrics by developmental psychologist Anneli Sepa, show an established correlation between an incipient autoimmune process among the children and a high level of stress among the parents. Divorce and violence against the mother entail a three-fold greater risk among the 2½-year-old children. However, the most common stress factors consist of more everyday things like difficulty sleeping and not being content with the role of the parent.
“Our studies support the hypothesis that stress in the family causes stress among the children, which in turn leads to greater strains on the beta cells that regulate the secretion of insulin,” says Anneli Sepa.
Earlier retrospective studies have indicated several background factors underlying childhood diabetes. They include the parents’ socio-economic status, descent, and age, infections the children have had, caesarian sections and neonatal intensive care. Stress can be the common denominator that triggers autoimmunity in the children.
Children included in the studies have not yet been genetically tested for type 1 diabetes. Some 20 of them have developed the disease, but their data remains to be analyzed.
The studies are part of a comprehensive research project called ABIS (All Children in Southeastern Sweden, in Swedish) headed by Johnny Ludvigsson, professor of pediatrics at Linköping University.