Type 2 Diabetes is Increasing in Children and Teens
Type 2 diabetes was once called “adult-onset diabetes” but, sadly, that’s no longer the case because that’s no longer the situation. Once an outlier among children and teenagers, there is growing cause for concern as more and more young people are developing Type 2 diabetes, including some children as young as 10 years of age.
Even back in 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 5,700 children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 we’re being newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes each year. That’s astonishing when you consider that fact not too long before that, it was virtually unheard of for kids and teens to develop this form of the disease.
Why are more kids getting Type 2 diabetes?
Before answering this question, it’s important to distinguish the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a genetic condition, most likely related to the body’s immune system, of which the exact causes remain uncertain.
Type 1 diabetes used to be referred to as “juvenile diabetes” because it tends to manifest at a younger age. The body becomes unable to produce insulin and, therefore, the missing insulin needs to be replaced by insulin injections, most often using syringes or pen needles. Other times a doctor may prescribe an insulin pump. Regardless, Type 1 diabetes is not a preventable or curable disorder. It is simply the luck of the draw.
Type 2 diabetes is an entirely different story
While researchers do not fully understand why some children develop Type 2 diabetes and others don’t, there are well-known and clearly defined factors that contribute the onset of the disease. Many of these are lifestyle related, including diet, exercise, and obesity (a growing problem among youth in the United States). Essentially, our kids are paying the price for what has become a far more sedentary and diabetes-friendly way of life than most of us older folks lived when we were young.
According to the CDC, there are two key risk factors for children with respect to developing Type 2 diabetes. Looking at them, it’s easy to see why the rate of Type 2 diabetes continues to rise in America.
Kids who are overweight, particularly if they have an excess of fat around the belly or midsection, are far more likely to develop insulin resistance – the precursor to Type 2 diabetes. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that enables the body to properly process blood sugar and turn it into energy. When a child or teen becomes insulin resistant, the body is unable to use insulin as effectively and efficiently as it should. Eventually, blood sugar levels start to rise, and the stage becomes set for the onset of Type 2 diabetes.
Not Enough Activity
Physical activity helps a child’s body use insulin more effectively and reduces the risk of insulin resistance. Of course, being active also helps kids control their weight and combat obesity. It promotes muscle and cardiovascular health. It helps alleviate stress and aids in mental acuity and emotional wellness. Kids and teens who don’t get an adequate amount of physical activity are starting down an unhealthy path at far too young an age - one that can contribute to the development of Type 2 diabetes.
Cultural, economic, and other factors
Beyond weight and activity level, there are other factors that can put young people at greater risk for Type 2 diabetes. For instance, some ethnic groups, such as African American, Hispanic, and Native American face a higher likelihood of developing the disease. Additionally, having a parent with Type 2 diabetes will put that child at greater risk.
However, this brings up another debate. Is the heightened risk these kids face purely genetic or are there environmental and economic factors at play?
Let’s take dietary choices as an example. We all know that healthy food is also more expensive food. This is why in so many underserved communities, childhood obesity is such a growing problem. It’s not those kids and their parents in these communities deliberately choose poor diets. It’s that they’re food choices are dramatically limited by both budgetary concerns and the lack of healthy options available nearby. Simply put, you can’t eat right if there are no healthy food choices near your home or you can’t afford them if they do exist.
What about children whose parents are overweight? The fact is obesity tends to be a multigenerational issue in America. Therefore, kids who grow up in a household where weight is an everyday problem are likely to develop the same unhealthy lifestyle habits their parents exhibit. When this happens, the children are the ones who suffer the health consequences, including a markedly higher risk of battling Type 2 diabetes.
Accelerated complications in youth with Type 2 diabetes
One of the most frightening aspects surrounding the rise of Type 2 diabetes in children and teens is this – the earlier in life a person develops diabetes, the earlier in life they can expect to experience serious diabetes-related complications. It only makes sense that since so many are developing Type 2 diabetes at a young age, the complications are also starting to show up at far younger ages than in past generations. These conditions include:
– Cardiovascular disease
– Kidney disease
– Nerve damage
– High cholesterol
Symptoms of Type 2 diabetes in young people
The symptoms of Type 2 diabetes in children and teens are the same as they are for adults:
– More frequent urination
– Frequent and more intense thirst
– Feeling hungry
– Blurry vision
– Darkened areas of the skin around the neck and armpits
– Unexplained weight loss
If your child or teen is experiencing any of these symptoms, see your doctor right away. Diabetes can be identified with a simple blood test, and this is the first step to managing it properly. The Mayo Clinic also recommends a diabetes screening for any child who is overweight or obese and has started puberty, or is 10 years or older and presents at least one additional risk factor (family member with Type 2 diabetes, etc.)
What can you do for your kids?
The rise in Type 2 diabetes among young people is a national crisis. It’s clear that economic and social factors also play a major role in the problem, unfairly burdening those most marginalized in our communities. We don’t propose to have all the answers in this post. However, there are two big choices you can make for your family to help minimize the risk of your kids developing Type 2 diabetes.
- Teach Healthy Eating– Get the kids involved in their diet. Cook with them and teach them to read food labels so they understand what ingredients are healthy and which ones aren’t. Shop for food together. Sit down at the dinner table rather than in front of the TV in order to make mealtime a family event. Focus on fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins like baked chicken and fish. Cut out the sugary drinks and, instead, drink more water.
- Make Activity A Family Affair– Your kids should get in at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. This also happens to be great for you. So, make fitness a family thing. Go for long walks or hikes or bike rides. Play sports or take a fitness class together. Encourage kids to go out for their school sports teams. Limit TV and online time and insist that the kids spend some time playing outdoors. If your kids aren’t in the best shape right now, that’s okay. Start them off slow and ease into things. The sooner your kids get active, the better the chance of minimizing the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
If your kids or teens are currently struggling with weight, it’s important to remember that they are, in fact, kids and still maturing physically. In order to control weight in the safest and most effective manner possible, it’s always a good idea to start by speaking to your child’s pediatrician or doctor.
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