Cerebral palsy is a neurological condition caused by brain damage in fetuses and newborns. Diabetes is a chronic illness characterized by high blood sugar levels. As dissimilar as they may seem, there is a connection. Research tells us that gestational diabetes, diabetes that occurs during pregnancy, may put a baby at risk for being born with cerebral palsy; and a child born with cerebral palsy may be at a greater risk for later developing diabetes and other chronic illnesses.
What is Gestational Diabetes?
There are a few different types of diabetes, but all are characterized by chronically high blood sugar levels. Having high blood sugar and not controlling it can lead to all kinds of complications, from nerve damage to vision loss, and ultimately death. Some people develop type 1 diabetes as children and live with the condition for the rest of their lives. Others develop type 2 diabetes as adults. This usually comes from obesity and inactivity and can be controlled and even reversed with positive lifestyle changes, like exercise, a better diet, and weight loss.
Gestational diabetes occurs in some pregnant women who did not have diabetes prior to conception. They develop high blood sugar levels only during pregnancy. Nearly ten percent of pregnant women develop this condition. No one knows for sure what causes gestational diabetes, but it may be related to hormones produced by the placenta that blocks the action of insulin, the hormone that normally regulates blood sugar.
How Diabetes Affects Babies
A woman with gestational diabetes can control and manage the condition, but if it is not controlled it can cause harm to the developing fetus. Gestational diabetes puts babies at risk for excess fat, breathing problems, and later development of obesity and type 2 diabetes. It is not just gestational diabetes that puts babies at risk; type 1 and type 2 diabetes may also cause complications.
A woman with type 1 or type 2 diabetes can minimize risks to her unborn baby by keeping her condition under control and her blood sugar levels normal. If diabetes is not well-controlled the baby could be at risk for serious birth defects of the heart, spine, or brain, excess fat and abnormal size, and even a miscarriage or a stillbirth.
Maternal Diabetes and Cerebral Palsy
Diabetes in the mother is already known to be related to a number of conditions in babies, especially when diabetes—of any type—is not adequately controlled. Among the many possible complications, research has also connected maternal diabetes to an increased risk of cerebral palsy in babies. One reason for this may be that a woman with poorly-controlled diabetes is more likely to give birth to a baby of a larger size. This puts the mother at risk for having a difficult labor, which can result in damage to the baby or asphyxia—lack of oxygen. Asphyxia is one of the most common causes of the brain damage that results in cerebral palsy.
Children with Cerebral Palsy and Diabetes
While mothers with diabetes may put their children at risk for having cerebral palsy, the risk is not large. This is especially true for mothers with their diabetes under control. On the other hand, a child with cerebral palsy may be at a greater risk for having diabetes as a child or adult. A recent study found that children with cerebral palsy are at an increased risk for diabetes as well as other chronic health conditions, including high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, emphysema, and cardiovascular health problems.
The study from the University of Michigan looked at adults with cerebral palsy and compared the rates of these chronic health problems with rates in the general population. The researchers found that 9.2 percent of adults with cerebral palsy also have diabetes, while only 6.3 percent of adults without cerebral palsy live with diabetes. This difference was found after adjusting for several other factors, like age, physical activity, body mass index, the severity of disability, and socioeconomic status.
The researchers did not delve into the reasons that children with cerebral palsy were more likely to grow up to have diabetes, but they did suggest possible explanations and areas for concern. One likely reason is that most adults with cerebral palsy lose mobility more rapidly with age and become more inactive. Inactivity can lead to weight gain, obesity, high blood sugar, and ultimately diabetes.
Prevention of Diabetes
A major area of concern for people living with cerebral palsy is the prevention, management, and treatment of chronic health conditions like diabetes. If these people are at a greater risk for diabetes, better health care, and education are needed to help prevent this debilitating chronic condition. Children with cerebral palsy need to learn about their risks and be given good health options for avoiding diabetes. They need ways to exercise that make sense for their disabilities and healthy food choices.
Diabetes poses a number of problems for anyone living with it. For women who are pregnant, diabetes may cause complications in fetal development and childbirth. For babies born with cerebral palsy, diabetes may be a future health concern. For both demographics, knowledge is power. Women need to understand the importance of controlling blood sugar, for both themselves and their babies; children with cerebral palsy need to understand their health risks and be given the information and the tools to take control over their own health.