While three decades ago it was rare for a child or teen to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, today, the American Medical Association (AMA) estimates that there are about 3,700 new cases a year among youth in the United States.
While the majority of new diabetes diagnoses in children are still type 1 – about 13,000 a year – the escalating numbers of type 2 cases, previously only seen in middle-aged people, is alarming.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), several factors contribute, including low levels of activity, exposure to type 2 diabetes in utero and an increase in obesity, spurred in part by the unhealthy eating habits of kids addicted to the empty calories of fast food and the processed foods that line store shelves.
A recent study of diabetes in youth found that between 2001 and 2009, instances of type 2 diabetes in children age 10 to 19 had risen by 21 percent, a significant number given the relative newness of such diagnoses.
“Twenty-one percent is substantial,” said Elizabeth Mayer-Davis of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, one of the project’s researchers, adding that Hispanic and non-Hispanic white youth accounted for most of the increase.
The ADA says children from certain racial and ethnic groups are at higher risk, including African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American children. Because type 2 diabetes elevates the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and amputations, among other health problems, the rising number of younger type 2 diabetes cases could break a health care system already straining from escalating cases of type 2 in adults.
According to a recent study, diabetic peripheral neuropathy – a disorder related to nerve damage that causes tingling and pain in the extremities and can lead to amputation – is an especially high risk factor for young people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
In a study of 400 patients who were diagnosed with diabetes before the age of 20, 8 percent of those with type 1 diabetes developed diabetic peripheral neuropathy, compared to more than 25 percent of those with type 2.
For adults with type 2, the incidence of diabetic peripheral neuropathy is estimated at between 12 and 50 percent.
In addition to neuropathy, type 2 diabetes in often accompanied by polycystic ovary syndrome, acanthosis nigricans (a thickening or darkening of the skin, especially in folds and creases, such as beneath the breasts), high blood pressure and retinopathy.
Estimates say about 20,000 people under the age of 20 had type 2 diabetes in 2010, with numbers expected to quadruple by 2050 without intervention.
Tips to prevent type 2 diabetes in kids:
• Limit beverages sweetened with sugar, including soda, sports drinks or coffee drinks, and choose water as much as possible.
• Trade out processed foods – foods that are packaged and bear little resemblance to a natural state – for fruits and veggies whenever possible.
• Limit fast food. Most items on drive-through menus have little to offer when it comes to nutrients, and are digested quickly, which initially sends blood sugar soaring, but then leads to crashes that cause us to reach for more food to restore energy.
• Make smarter choices when faced with temptations. Try grapes or berries in place of cupcakes, choose fiber-rich granola in place of candy bars from a snack machine, and select baked chips over regular ones when possible.
• Learn to read the labels. Check the grams of sugar, fat and nutrients on packaged foods so you know whether the decision is a wise one.
• Limit their screen time. Whether a TV, computer or gaming device, try to limit the time spent seated in front of it.
• Kids and teens need 60 minutes of activity a day for optimum health. Encourage them to walk, bike, ride a scooter or cross-country ski to school and to walk the dog after school. Make weekends a time for hanging out with friends at the park, museum, mall or just around the neighborhood.
• Choose rewards for good grades or other accomplishments that aren’t food-based, like a sleepover, an accessory item, film, or book.