Diabetic Girls May Have Heart Risk Factors

Study authors not clear on why, but urge doctors to watch teens closely

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, June 27 (HealthDay News) -- New research finds that girls and young women with type 1 diabetes show signs of risk factors for cardiovascular disease at an early age.

The findings don't definitively prove that type 1 diabetes, the kind that often begins in childhood, directly causes the risk factors, and heart attack and stroke remain rare in young people. But they do spotlight the differences between the genders when it comes to the risk of heart problems for diabetics, said study co-author Dr. R. Paul Wadwa, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver.

"We're seeing measurable differences early in life, earlier than we expected," he said. "We need to make sure we're screening appropriately for cardiovascular risk factors, and with girls, it seems like it's even more important."

According to Wadwa, diabetic adults are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease than others without diabetes. Diabetic women, in particular, seem to lose some of the protective effects that their gender provides against heart problems, Wadwa said.

"Women are protected from cardiovascular disease in the pre-menopausal state probably because they are exposed to sex hormones, mainly estrogen," said Dr. Joel Zonszein, a clinical medicine professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. "This protection may be ameliorated or lost in individuals with diabetes."

It's not clear, however, when diabetic females begin to lose their advantage. In the new study, Wadwa and colleagues looked specifically at type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes since it's often diagnosed in childhood.

The researchers tested 402 children and young adults aged 12 to 19 from the Denver area. Some had type 1 diabetes and others did not.

Among those with diabetes, females had higher blood sugar and cholesterol levels and were more overweight than males. High blood sugar, high cholesterol and excess weight all boost the risk of cardiovascular disease.

"While generally we don't see heart attack and stroke in teenagers, we know that what we see in teenagers lays the groundwork for later in life," Wadwa said. "Measurable differences in these factors at such a young age puts them at a higher risk later on in life."

It's not clear, however, whether other factors like obesity could explain the risk factors, he said.

For pediatricians, the study shows the importance of keeping close track of diabetic teens, and urging a healthy diet, exercise and medication if necessary, Wadwa said.

But Zonszein said the usefulness of the study is limited because it doesn't provide a new message. However, he added, it does offer valid advice about the importance of a healthy diet, proper exercise and control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

The study was scheduled to be released Monday at an American Diabetes Association meeting in San Diego. Experts note that research presented at meetings is considered preliminary because it has not been subjected to the rigorous scrutiny required for publication in a medical journal.

More information

The American Diabetes Association has more on type 1 diabetes.

SOURCES: R. Paul Wadwa, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Denver; Joel Zonszein, M.D., professor of clinical medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City; June 27, 2011, presentation, American Diabetes Association, Scientific Sessions, San Diego

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