A new study, which examined families in Manitoba, Canada, for nearly 30 years, has found a strong association between long-term cardiac risk factors in children and their mother’s type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes.

Study author Dr. Laetitia Guillemette of the University of Manitoba said, “I was surprised at the strength of the association because we see a twofold, threefold higher risk for those who are exposed to diabetes compared to those who are not exposed.”

The researchers looked at the health history of over 290,000 children born to 190,000 mothers from 1979 to 2005. They found that 2.8% of those children had intrauterine exposure to gestational diabetes, while 1.1% were exposed to pre-existing type 2 diabetes.

The study findings showed that over 8,700 of the offspring were diagnosed with hypertension, nearly 3,600 developed type 2 diabetes, and 715 had ischemic heart disease.

The team explained that children born to mothers with diabetes were 30% to 80% more likely to develop a cardiac condition. Also, they two to three times more likely to develop a cardiac risk factor – such as diabetes and hypertension.

Dr. Robert Gabbay, Chief Science and Medical Officer at the American Diabetes Association said, “This is looking at individuals that are relatively young for heart disease. That is really concerning. By age 35, it could lead to heart disease. We typically think of heart disease being at a much older age.”

During pregnancy, it is extremely important to control diabetes through diet, medication as needed, according to Dr. Gabbay.

“We know that people at higher blood sugars during pregnancy have larger babies, have more likelihood of challenges during delivery, higher cesarean rate, a variety of pregnancy complications,” Dr. Gabbay said. “Whereas higher blood sugar leads to all of those things, controlling blood sugars prevents all those things, so the link is really strong.”

The study, published Monday in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal), did not determine why gestational diabetes affects the heart. However, one hypothesis suggests that it’s because the fetuses’ organs are made in real-time using the nutrients available to them.

Dr. Guillemette, who is also a scientific evaluator for Health Canada, said, “The baby is basically setting up for a life of being exposed to those kinds of nutrients and then becomes exposed to different kinds of nutrients when it’s a growing person. There might be a disjointed message between how the body is set up and what it receives to function.”

She said, “My goal was to highlight the fact that many of the things that affect our health are not directly related to individual decisions and lifestyles.”

The researchers believe that these findings could be useful for preventive health. Dr. Guillemette is hopeful that policymakers can work on creating a healthier environment for everyone.

“Even though we adjusted for it in our study, we do see that diabetes and heart disease are both clustering with poverty,” she said. “If we tackled poverty, maybe we would erase two problems,” she added. “I think the takeaway from this is also that we can’t look at just interventions that target diabetes and just interventions that target heart disease because they’re all related, and they’re all related to other things.”