Researchers find link between gestational diabetes and type 2 diabetes

African American women may be significantly more likely to develop type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives if they experience gestational diabetes while they are pregnant, according to a new study from a team of Kaiser Permanente researchers.

The findings are challenging the conventional wisdom regarding the long-term impact of gestational diabetes. While it is viewed as a potentially serious pregnancy complication that can impact the health of the mother and her unborn child prior to delivery, there are generally thought to be few long-term effects.

The new results, which were published in the journal Diabetologia, suggest that African Americans are at the highest risk. The researchers said representatives of this group are generally less prone to developing gestational diabetes, but when they do, the consequences can be much worse.

Researchers tracked the health of nearly 78,000 women who gave birth between 1995 and 2009. Participants came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The results showed that African American women were 10 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes if they experienced gestational diabetes during pregnancy.

Comparatively, Caucasian women were 6.5 times more prone to type 2 diabetes following gestational diabetes.

The researchers said their findings could help doctors identify individuals who are at the greatest risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. This may enable physicians to make lifestyle recommendations that enable them to avoid the condition.

"All women diagnosed with GDM should be screened for diabetes soon after their delivery and subsequently at regular intervals. These women would benefit from lifestyle changes such as changes in diet and increases in physical activity that can reduce diabetes risk," said lead researcher Anny Xiang.

Both gestational diabetes and type 2 diabetes are primarily caused by an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity. However, taking steps to eat more nutritious foods and become more active can help a person prevent the conditions.

Most importantly, the findings will enable doctors to provide more appropriate counseling to women about the risks associated with gestational diabetes. For many years, advice mainly centered on dealing with the risks that pertained to the pregnancy. However, physicians may now be more aware that gestational diabetes can lead to long-term health complications, including type 2 diabetes.