Diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in the West, but doctors are only now recognising its prevalence. While researchers and statisticians have tracked diseases such as breast cancer and heart disease, nobody had bothered to do the same for diabetes - until now.
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA have discovered that one in three men in the States will develop diabetes, and the risk is only slightly lower for women.
Taking a random population born in the year 2000, researchers estimate that 32.8 per cent of men and 38.3 per cent of females will develop diabetes in their lifetimes, and the risk rises among the Hispanic population to 45.4 per cent of men and 52.5 per cent of women. As a result, an average non-Hispanic man diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 40 will have 11 years cut from his life expectancy, while his quality of life will be affected for 18 years.
But it's not just down to the dietary decisions we make as adults, as researchers from the University of Colorado have discovered. They have found that babies introduced to cereals and other solids too early - and in some cases as early as one to three months - are much more likely to develop diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are impaired; the marker for this process is known as islet autoimmunity (IA), which can be present for many years before diabetes occurs.
When researchers tested the blood of 1,183 children, they found from their IA levels that those exposed to solids and cereals between the ages of one to three months were more than four times more likely to develop diabetes than a breastfed baby; strangely, the risk increased again among babies who were introduced to cereals when they were seven months of age or older.
A slightly lower risk was also associated with rice and other gluten products, either given individually or together.
Researchers suggest that the 'safe' age to introduce cereals and other solids is between four and six months. Perhaps they would have been wiser to suggest a far older age.
(Sources: Prevalence of diabetes: Journal of the American Medical Association, 2003; 290: 1884-90; Diabetes and cereals: Journal of the American Medical Association, 2003; 290: 1713-20).