Why Type 2 Diabetes Is Increasing In Children And Adolescents

With the rise in Type 2 diabetes among adults, you may wonder if there’s also an increase among children and young adults. Turns out, there sure is.

A large study called SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth found that newly diagnosed cases of Type 2 diabetes in children and teens increased by about 4.8 percent in each year of the study’s period between 2002 and 2012.

What’s driving this increase? “Prior to the 1980s, Type 2 diabetes was extremely uncommon in children and adolescents,” says diabetologist and certified diabetes educator Dr. Fran Cogen, interim co-chief of the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes, director of the Childhood and Adolescent Diabetes Program at Children’s National Health System and professor of pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in the District of Columbia. “Unfortunately, the rate has increased as our lifestyles have become increasingly sedentary, and we’ve seen an explosion of processed, high-sugar and fast-food options.” Couple that with lower physical activity and more time in front of screens, and that’s a recipe for an increased diabetes risk.

Poor diet choices and lower levels of physical activity increase the risk for obesity, which is the most powerful determinant of Type 2 diabetes in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, says Dr. Michael Freemark, professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. In fact, several large population studies have found that childhood obesity that continues in the teen years can increase the risk for adult-onset Type 2 diabetes four- to 28-fold, Freemark says. “It’s therefore not surprising that the global rise in the prevalence of childhood Type 2 diabetes has coincided with a dramatic increase in childhood obesity,” he says.

There’s also a genetic role in Type 2 diabetes. In other words, if you have a parent or sibling who has it, there’s a greater chance that you’ll develop the disease as well.

It can be confusing to try and track Type 2 diabetes symptoms, especially in children. Sometimes, there are no symptoms. However, increased thirst, urination, bedwetting and unexplained weight loss could indicate Type 2 diabetes. Another symptom in children is a darkening around the neck and underarms, which is a sign of insulin resistance, says Dr. Robert Rapaport, professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. Insulin resistance is when your body can’t respond correctly to the insulin it produces.

Other possible symptoms of Type 2 diabetes include early puberty, especially in at-risk population groups such as African-Americans and American Islanders, Rapaport says. An increasing number of Staphylococcus skin infections or vaginal yeast infections in girls also can be signs of Type 2 diabetes.

Of course, depending on your child’s age, you may not spot all of the symptoms easily, and your child may not share them or even be aware of them.

Parents may not always have Type 2 diabetes on their minds. “That’s one of the scariest factors of the disease. In many cases, it’s not even on a parent’s radar,” Cogen says.

Even in parents who are aware of diabetes risks, it’s hard to overcome factors like the convenience of fast food, the lack of time to prepare healthier food at home and the higher cost of certain fresh foods. “Parents may also fail to connect the dots between their own family histories of metabolic disease and the child’s risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes,” Freemark explains.

If you suspect your child has symptoms of Type 2 diabetes, make sure to visit your family doctor or pediatrician. Their office can consider screening for diabetes. When a child is very overweight or has signs of insulin resistance, health professionals are more likely to check blood sugar and possibly hemoglobin A1C level, Freemark says. If there’s a family history of diabetes or signs of polycystic ovary syndrome in teenage girls (including menstrual irregularity and having acne or excess facial hair), there’s a greater chance that they will get their blood sugar tested. A pediatric endocrinologist may need to help care for a child or teen with abnormal results.

Here are some ways to help lower your child’s risk for Type 2 diabetes:

As a family, plan to eat healthier and exercise more. “The key is to make small, incremental changes that the whole family can participate in so no one feels isolated or singled out,” Cogen says. These small changes can help your child lose weight if that’s a problem, and that lowers the chance of developing Type 2 diabetes. Healthier habits are especially important when there’s a long family history of diabetes, but there shouldn’t be the impression that anyone will inevitably develop Type 2 diabetes. “Operating as a team, a family, is much more likely to be successful,” she adds.

Find out about healthier food choices. These include lean meats, vegetables and fruitsand fewer concentrated sweets, sugars, high-density starchy foods, saturated fats and fried and fast foods, Freemark says.

Educate your children as they get older. This creates awareness that will help them when they are adults. For example, research finds that young adult women should have a healthy weight even before they get pregnant to reduce the chances of diabetes both for themselves and their future children, Freemark says. By arming them with information as a teen or young adult, they can make better choices.

Although the increase in Type 2 diabetes in children and teens may seem daunting, there is a silver lining, Freemark says. The risk for Type 2 diabetes in people who were overweight or obese as children but not as adults was no higher than the Type 2 diabetes risk in adults who were never overweight. In other words, you can cut your risk if you lose weight earlier in life. “This encouraging finding suggests that reversal of childhood obesity may prevent subsequent development of Type 2 diabetes,” he says.