Premature babies may face a greater risk of type 2 diabetes later in life, regardless of their birth weight.

A new study shows children who were born prematurely were more likely to be less sensitive to insulin, which is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes, even if their birth weight was appropriate for their birth age.

The findings suggest that children who are born prematurely may share the same higher risk of type 2 diabetes previously found in low birth weight babies who are born at term.

If further studies confirm these results, researchers say children and adults who were born prematurely or of low birth weight may need to be targeted for healthy lifestyle interventions or drugs to increase insulin sensitivity and possibly delay the development of type 2 diabetes.

Prematurity Increases Diabetes Risks

In the study, which appears in the Nov. 18 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers compared the insulin sensitivity of 72 healthy children ranging in age from 4 to 10 years old. Fifty of them had been born prematurely, including 38 who had a birth weight that was still considered normal for a prematurely born infant.

Researchers found that children who had been born prematurely, whether their weight was appropriate or low for their birth age, had lower insulin sensitivity compared with those who had not been born prematurely.

In an editorial that accompanies the study, Mark Sperling, MD, of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, says the “provocative findings require both reflection and action.”

He says reflection is necessary because studies have not yet shown a higher rate of type 2 diabetes among adults who were premature babies. Action is needed because the risk of prematurity and low birth weight are both greatly reduced by adequate prenatal health and nutritional care.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCE: Hofman, P. The New England Journal of Medicine, Nov. 18, 2004; vol 351: pp 2179-2186.