We’ve all heard that stress is unhealthy for mind and body, but many of us typically think of adults as bearing the brunt of stress and its negative health effects. New research suggests that children may also be susceptible to the health risks of stressful experiences – such as their parents’ divorce or separation. In fact, researchers at Linkoping University in Sweden now believe that children of divorce are three times more likely to develop type 1 diabetes than children who have not experienced this form of stress.
The Swedish study looked at data from over 10,000 families with kids aged two to fourteen without a pre-existing condition. Parents were asked to fill out questionnaires regarding stress levels, parental conflict, social support, and serious events that have affected the family. The researchers examined the results to determine the impact of psychological factors on a child’s risk of diabetes. Of those involved in the study, 58 children went on to develop type 1 diabetes.
The study authors suggest that the anxiety caused by their parents’ divorce could increase beta cell stress due to stronger insulin resistance and insulin demands caused by heightened levels of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. The authors concluded that “the experience of a serious life event (reasonably indicating psychological stress) during the first 14 years of life may be a risk factor for developing type 1 diabetes.”
Although the specific causes of type 1 diabetes remain unknown, there are several factors that may contribute to a person’s risk of developing the disease. Genetic predisposition, dietary habits, viral infections, early weight gain, and chronic stress are all acknowledged as potential risk factors. Other high-stress scenarios that can contribute to a child’s heightened risk of type 1 diabetes include a death or serious illness in the family.
Most people who are diabetic have type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity, but the majority of children who have diabetes are afflicted with type 1. Because stressful events can never be avoided altogether, researchers assert that it is crucial for parents to provide the support necessary to help children cope with serious events – such as divorce – and any resulting anxiety their children may experience.