People who are a low weight at birth and have unhealthy habits as adults, such as eating nutritionally poor diets or smoking, may have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people born at an average weight who live similar lifestyles, according to a new study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In the first study to comprehensively assess how early development interacts with adult behavior to influence type 2 diabetes risk, the researchers found that 18% of cases were attributable to the combined effect of low birth weight and unhealthy adult lifestyles.

“Most cases of type 2 diabetes could be prevented by the adoption of a healthier lifestyle, but these findings suggest that efforts focused on early life development, such as improving nutrition for pregnant women, could prevent additional cases,” said Lu Qi, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School and Channing Division of Network Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the study’s senior author.

While previous studies have looked at how adult lifestyles may modify early life risks, few have analyzed the joint effects of early life and unhealthy lifestyle factors on type 2 diabetes risk.

The study appeared online July 21, 2015 in BMJ.

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