Objective: Early developmental adaptations in response to undernutrition may play an essential role in susceptibility to type 2 diabetes, particularly for those experiencing a "mismatched rich nutritional environment" in later life. We examined the associations of exposure to the Chinese famine (1959-1961) during fetal life and childhood with the risk of hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes in adulthood.
Research design and methods: We used the data for 7,874 rural adults born between 1954 and 1964 in selected communities from the cross-sectional 2002 China National Nutrition and Health Survey. Hyperglycemia was defined as fasting plasma glucose ≥6.1 mmol/l and/or 2-h plasma glucose ≥7.8 mmol/l and/or a previous clinical diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
Results: Prevalences of hyperglycemia among adults in nonexposed, fetal exposed, early-childhood, mid-childhood, and late-childhood exposed cohorts were 2.4%, 5.7%, 3.9%, 3.4%, and 5.9%, respectively. In severely affected famine areas, fetal-exposed subjects had an increased risk of hyperglycemia compared with nonexposed subjects (odds ratio = 3.92; 95% CI: 1.64-9.39; P = 0.002); this difference was not observed in less severely affected famine areas (odds ratio = 0.57; 95% CI: 0.25-1.31; P = 0.185). The odds ratios were significantly different between groups from the severe and less severe famine areas (P for interaction = 0.001). In severely affected famine areas, fetal-exposed subjects who followed an affluent/Western dietary pattern (odds ratios = 7.63; 95% CI: 2.41-24.1; P = 0.0005) or who had a higher economic status in later life experienced a substantially elevated risk of hyperglycemia (odds ratios = 6.20; 95% CI: 2.08-18.5; P = 0.001).
Conclusions: Fetal exposure to the severe Chinese famine increases the risk of hyperglycemia in adulthood. This association appears to be exacerbated by a nutritionally rich environment in later life.