Problems in Childhood Increase Your Risk of Developing Diabetes as an Adult

Posted on 13.06.2019

A researcher at the Steno Diabetes Center in Aarhus is looking into the reasons why some adults develop diabetes, and at the same time envisions a society in which not too many people have to ‘swim in toxic waters’

If you go hungry as a child, your risk of developing diabetes as an adult increases by about 60%. If you are neglected or lose one of your parents, for example, your risk of developing diabetes increases by up to 50%. And quite a lot of people are vulnerable, even here in Europe, where approximately one in three European children experiences mental or physical abuse. 

A new research project at the Steno Diabetes Center in Aarhus is looking into the reasons why this lack of well-being manifests as a disease. ‘We can only prevent it when we know the mechanisms behind it’, says Dr Luke Johnston, PhD.

He is in charge of the research and has just received a 1.8 million Danish kroner grant from the Danish Diabetes Academy, which will allow him to dedicate three years exclusively to this work.

Denmark is a gold mine to work in as a researcher
Some of the specific answers he is looking for are the effects on the risk of developing type 2 diabetes for people whose parents get divorced, have severe financial problems, or are immigrants. And there is a huge amount of data to work with: databases with information on the finances, health, divorces, parents’ education, children’s hospital admissions, recent immigration and parents’ health status for all Danes. It is even possible to find information about economic problems in their neighbourhoods.

‘With so many good records available, Denmark is a gold mine to work in as a researcher. Had I conducted this research in Canada, I would have had to gather a lot of information myself and it would have been difficult to find a representative sample’, he says.

The great amount of data in the Danish system also makes it possible to supplement his research with another goal: together with colleagues from the University of Potsdam in Germany and from Harvard in Boston, USA, he will develop technologies that optimise analysis methods for such large and complex health data. These technologies will later be made available to all other researchers.

We’re swimming around in toxic waters
Canadian born Luke Johnston says that the indigenous people of Canada sparked his interest in working on preventing disease. ‘If they and Greenlanders, for example, are to stay healthy, they need to move around a lot and live healthy. But they don’t. They drive and they eat bad food. Those are the options they have. Their children become obese and they get diabetes. The way we live today, there are a lot of people, even here in Denmark, who are, figuratively speaking, swimming around in toxic waters. Like everyone else, they have to generate their own growth, and they can’t. It’s like a poorly built factory, which can’t meet its production requirements’, he says.

Luke Johnston has a very telling example of what happens when people fail to thrive in their first six years of life. ‘Look at babies. Healthy children’s legs grow so long that they account for half of their body length. In contrast, babies who have experienced trauma often have short legs, so if you see a child with legs that are too short it can certainly be an indicator that something else is wrong’, he says.

Cities and communities should be designed differently
The objective of his current research is initially to find out what is happening in our bodies—but in the long term Luke’s dream is to influence society and get politicians to take the initiative to have cities and communities designed in such a way that makes it easy for us to move around and eat a healthy diet. ‘I hope my research can contribute to preventing disease by making healthy choices the easiest option, as healthy food, quality sleep and low stress levels can provide much more health than medicine’, he says.

FACTS about the Danish Diabetes Academy
The Danish Diabetes Academy was founded in 2012 and is supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation and Danish universities and university hospitals. The goal is to strengthen Danish diabetes research and treatment by helping to educate future diabetes researchers and therapists.

‘The project has two main objectives. The first is to identify target points for pre-emptive actions in early life that can increase overall health and reduce an individual’s risk of diabetes in adulthood. The second is to contribute to the development of better statistical methods that can be used by other researchers to gain more knowledge in their field of research.

You can find more information on the website for the project proposal:


Luke Johnston
MSc, Postdoc
Steno Diabetes Center Aarhus
+45 22 59 76 51

Danish Diabetes Academy
Managing Director Tore Christiansen
+45 29646764

Copyright © 2023 Danish Diabetes and Endocrine Academy. All Rights Reserved • Privacy Policy