Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders May Increase the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Other Metabolic Issues

Adults with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) may have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic abnormalities such as low HDL cholesterol and elevated levels of triglycerides compared to people without FASD, according to a new study supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health. The research team confirmed their findings in a zebrafish model of FASD and gained insight into the mechanisms that may play a role in these metabolic issues.

FASD is a term that refers to the broad range of lifelong birth defects and neurodevelopmental abnormities that occur as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure. People with FASD may have facial abnormalities, cognitive and behavioral deficits, and growth impairments. However, little is known about the occurrence of metabolic issues in adults with FASD.

In the study, a team of Harvard Medical School researchers led by senior author Wolfram Goessling, M.D., Ph.D., and first author Olivia Weeks, sought to gain a better understanding of the metabolic issues associated with prenatal alcohol exposure. Using a patient database registry at a large academic health system, the researchers identified 208 patients age 18 or older with FASD and a set of patients without FASD who were similar in age, sex, race, and ethnicity. They found that patients with FASD had an increased incidence of type 2 diabetes, lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and elevated triglyceride levels compared to those without FASD. Low HDL cholesterol and elevated triglyceride levels are associated with increased risk of stroke and heart attack. The team also found that female patients with FASD were more likely to be overweight and obese than their male counterparts. Additionally, patients with FASD were more likely to have two or more metabolic abnormalities than patients without FASD.

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