Background: Socioeconomic adversity in early life has been hypothesized to "program" a vulnerable phenotype with exaggerated inflammatory responses, so increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in adulthood. The aim of this study is to test this hypothesis by assessing the extent to which the association between lifecourse socioeconomic status and type 2 diabetes incidence is explained by chronic inflammation.
Methods and findings: We use data from the British Whitehall II study, a prospective occupational cohort of adults established in 1985. The inflammatory markers C-reactive protein and interleukin-6 were measured repeatedly and type 2 diabetes incidence (new cases) was monitored over an 18-year follow-up (from 1991-1993 until 2007-2009). Our analytical sample consisted of 6,387 non-diabetic participants (1,818 women), of whom 731 (207 women) developed type 2 diabetes over the follow-up. Cumulative exposure to low socioeconomic status from childhood to middle age was associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes in adulthood (hazard ratio [HR] = 1.96, 95% confidence interval: 1.48-2.58 for low cumulative lifecourse socioeconomic score and HR = 1.55, 95% confidence interval: 1.26-1.91 for low-low socioeconomic trajectory). 25% of the excess risk associated with cumulative socioeconomic adversity across the lifecourse and 32% of the excess risk associated with low-low socioeconomic trajectory was attributable to chronically elevated inflammation (95% confidence intervals 16%-58%).
Conclusions: In the present study, chronic inflammation explained a substantial part of the association between lifecourse socioeconomic disadvantage and type 2 diabetes. Further studies should be performed to confirm these findings in population-based samples, as the Whitehall II cohort is not representative of the general population, and to examine the extent to which social inequalities attributable to chronic inflammation are reversible.