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Could a Common Virus Lead to Type 2 Diabetes in Seniors?

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonOctober 1, 2012

A new study, reported in MyHealthNewsDaily, suggests that older adults infected with cytomegalovirus might be at higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes itself is not infectious—you can’t catch it by touching a diabetes sufferer, and there’s no such thing as diabetes “germs.” But some other infectious diseases might increase seniors’ risk of developing diabetes. A new study from the Netherlands, published in the journal Immunity and Ageing, looked at 549 elderly adults to analyze a possible link between infection with cytomegalovirus and the development of Type 2 diabetes. While no specific cause-and-effect relationship has been found yet, researchers have found a clear association between the two, implying that cytomegalovirus could play a role in elderly Type 2 diabetes.

Study Shows Link Between Infection and Diabetes

Cytomegalovirus is a type of herpes virus found in 50 to 80 percent of U.S. adults over age 40, according to the CDC, usually without symptoms. However, it’s a virus that sticks around for life once you’re infected, similar to other types of herpes viruses like varicella zoster, which causes chicken pox and shingles. Earlier studies found a link between cytomegalovirus and Type 1 diabetes, but this recent study reveals that seniors age 85 and over are more than twice as likely to have Type 2 diabetes if they are also infected with cytomegalovirus.

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One proposed possibility for this link is that cytomegalovirus may harm cells in the pancreas, predisposing people to diabetes. Alternatively, since Type 2 diabetes can cause problems with the immune system, it might make people more susceptible to infection with cytomegalovirus. This explanation is less likely, because most people with cytomegalovirus were infected in childhood.

But don’t go rushing out and testing your loved ones for cytomegalovirus yet—it hasn’t been determined whether the association is causal. Scientists will have to follow infected individuals over time to figure out whether cytomegalovirus actually leads directly to Type 2 diabetes in the elderly.

How Seniors Can Minimize Type 2 Diabetes Risk

Since cytomegalovirus is usually symptomless, it’s nearly impossible to know whether our loved ones might be infected or not. However, the CDC says, otherwise healthy individuals who are infected usually don’t require medical treatment. In any case, the link between cytomegalovirus and Type 2 diabetes isn’t clear-cut.

What is clear-cut is the link between other well-understood—and more preventable—risk factors and diabetes: obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, lack of exercise, unhealthy eating habits. All of these are known to increase the likelihood of Type 2 diabetes, but if we encourage the seniors in our lives to eat right, be physically active, and pay attention to their health, we can help minimize diabetes risk.

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