Why Type 2 Diabetes Is Increasing in Children

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Mother helping child test blood glucose. Tom Merton/Caiaimage/Getty Images

Once upon a time, and not that long ago, it was rare to see type 2 diabetes in children. In fact, type 2 diabetes used to be called “adult-onset diabetes” to distinguish it from “juvenile diabetes” (a.k.a., type 1 diabetes), an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas (people with type 1 require daily insulin injections).

By contrast, type 2 diabetes, in which the body doesn’t use insulin properly (causing blood sugar levels to rise higher than normal), typically appeared in adults after age 40 but it’s now increasing among tweens and teens as obesity levels rise in these age groups.

The Scope of the Problem

Both obesity and type 2 diabetes are reaching epidemic proportions among children and teenagers. In the past 30 years, obesity has more than doubled among children and quadrupled among adolescents, and more than 33 percent of kids and adolescents are now considered overweight or obese. Meanwhile, between 2001 and 2009, there was a 31 percent increase in type 2 diabetes among those under 19. These are alarming statistics, indeed.

But what’s especially worrisome is that kids with type 2 diabetes are likely to live with the disease for longer than adults are, and hence they’ll have more years in which to experience complications from the disease.

Complications can include vision problems, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, kidney disease, skin infections, nerve damage, and digestive problems (such as gastroparesis, or delayed emptying of the stomach). Moreover, recent research suggests that children with type 2 diabetes tend to experience a more rapid progression of the disease than those who are diagnosed as adults.

 

Who’s At Risk and Why

Being overweight (based on a body mass index, BMI, over the 85th percentile for a child’s age and gender) is a prime risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes. Simply put, excess body fat makes it more difficult for the cells to respond to insulin. There are other risk factors as well, including being physically inactive, having a family history of type 2 diabetes or being of American Indian, African American, Hispanic, Asian American, or Pacific Islander descent. If a child’s mother had gestational diabetes during the pregnancy, that increases the child’s risk, too.

While some kids and teens with type 2 diabetes may be symptom-free, others have signs that are similar to those for type 1 diabetes—fatigue, excessive thirst, frequent urination, nausea, blurred vision, unexplained weight loss, frequent infections or slow healing. Yet, sometimes kids (and their parents) don’t realize there’s a problem until the results of a fasting blood sugar test come back indicating the presence of diabetes.

Turning the Tide

Just as it is in adults, type 2 diabetes is typically treated in children with dietary changes, exercise, weight loss, and medications, with the goal of improving the body’s response to insulin and hence blood sugar levels. But this is an instance where an ounce of prevention is worth more than several pounds of cure. Sticking with a healthy diet, proper portion control, and regular exercise can help kids slim down and reduce their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. That’s a win-win scenario, if ever there was one.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood Obesity Facts. Accessed online August 15, 2014.
Dabelea D, Mayer-Davis, EJ, Saydah S, Imperatore G, Linder B, Divers J, Bell R, Badaru A, Talton JW, Crume T, Liese AD, Merchant AT, Lawrence JM, Reynolds K, Dolan L, Liu LL, Hamman RF. May 7, 2014. Prevalence of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes Among Children and Adolescents From 2001 to 2009. JAMA [accessed online August 15, 2014]; 311(17): 1778-1786.
JDRF. Frequently Asked Questions. Accessed online August 15, 2014.
National Diabetes Education Program. Overview of Diabetes in Children and AdolescentsAccessed online August 15, 2014.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health. Am I at risk for type 2 diabetes? Taking Steps to Lower Your Risk of Getting Diabetes. Accessed online August 15, 2014. 

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