Type 1 diabetes is on the rise, as this story in USA Today recently detailed. Since Type 1 (insulin-dependent diabetes) is a chronic condition that springs seemingly out of nowhere, this is a major puzzle for researchers. The condition is heritable, but only at rates of about 88 percent, which means at least 12 percent of people diagnosed with T1 have no family history of T1D.
Moreover, the increase in T1 has been alarming because of the steep increase in diagnosed cases, according to the study that USA Today cites. The study, which surveyed 3 million children and adolescents throughout the United States, shows a 21-percent jump in T1 in less than 10 years. (The research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, covered 2000-2009; data from the past five years are not yet available.)
Worldwide, a similar pattern is emerging. Medical journalist Maryn McKenna has followed the trend, and reports that global T1 rates are increasing by three to five percent each year.
It’s likely that at least some of the increase can be attributed to improved reporting and better health care in nations traditionally lacking in health care. When people have no access to doctors, they live – and die – without diagnosis, and their lives never penetrate international reports.
But there are other factors being studied, including these three:
Changes in gut bacteria caused by widespread consumption of processed food. It’s said that we are 90 percent microbe, and 10 percent human (sorry to ruin your day if you’re just now learning that), and that it’s the microbes – not our brains – that determine our food cravings, and ultimately our overall health. Over the past century, our eating habits have changed drastically, and for many of us, not for the better. There’s a whole lot going on under our skin, and these changes — not only in our own bodies, but in our grandparents, too – may be contributing to new cases of diabetes.
Diets rich in gluten. Because people living with T1 have unusually high rates of celiac disease compared to the general population (10 percent as opposed to 1), it’s suspected that gluten intolerance also figures into the troubling equation. Additionally, some people think the number of people who are intolerant of, or sensitive to, gluten has skyrocketed because of the modern diet’s over-dependence on wheat.
And, ironically enough, the over-sanitization of our world. Explaining this, McKenna cites “the hygiene hypothesis” which suggests that early exposure to health threats helps the immune system fight them later in life.
“The diabetes version of the hygiene hypothesis proposes that when the immune system learns not to overreact to allergens, it also learns to tolerate compounds from the body’s own tissues – and therefore prevents the autoimmune attack that destroys the ability to make insulin,” she wrote in Scientific American.
To those of us already living with Type 1 diabetes, all this means in the coming years is that we’ll have a lot more company. Thankfully, advances in treatment are also coming at the same rapid pace.