Type 2 diabetes used to be called “adult-onset diabetes” for a reason: It occurred mostly in middle-aged adults and, rarely, in children. But in the last decade, a serious shift in diabetes trends has made the description of “adult-onset” no longer applicable, because adult-onset diabetes is becoming more common in children.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 3,700 Americans under the age of 20 are diagnosed each year with what is now more commonly known as simply “type 2” diabetes.
Because type 2 diabetes in this young age group is such a new phenomenon, no one knows for sure what the health cost of the disease will be, but given its long list of associated risks, which are dangerous enough when they first start in your 50s or 60s, it could be significant.
Heart attacks and kidney problems in your 20s and 30s?
Diabetes is known to quadruple the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. It is the leading cause of blindness and kidney failure in the United States. It also significantly increases the risk of high blood pressure, nervous system damage, gum disease, and lower extremity amputations.
These statistics are primarily for people who develop diabetes in midlife and beyond, and it stands to reason that the longer a person has diabetes, the worse the complications can be. Therefore, it is possible that a generation of children with diabetes will face a host of previously “adult” diseases, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, while they are still young.
No one knows how many children are at risk
Fewer than 4,000 new diagnoses of type 2 diabetes in children under the age of 20 each year may not seem like such a high number, but it’s likely that a much larger number of young Americans are on the brink of a diabetes diagnosis than initially appears.
Estimates of undiagnosed diabetes aren’t available for children, but consider this: Already, 24 million Americans have diabetes, but a quarter of them don’t know they have it. An estimated 57 million also have prediabetes, a stepping stone to real disease, and again many don’t know it. This is because symptoms often develop slowly, sometimes over a period of years, and are easy to miss. Some people don’t have any symptoms either.
Given that more than twice the number of American adults with diabetes have “silent” prediabetes, it’s likely that an untold number of American children also have prediabetes and are just months or years away from full-blown diabetes. diagnosis.
Furthermore, the number of children with diabetes is growing at an alarming rate. In a national study of children’s hospital discharge records from 1997, 2000, and 2003, rates of type 2 diabetes hospitalizations increased 200 percent. 
Is obesity to blame?
Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last three decades. According to the latest statistics from the CDC, “The prevalence of obesity among children ages 6 to 11 increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents ages 12 to 19 years increased from 5.0% to 18.1″. %”.
As in adults, excess weight in children increases the risk of related complications ranging from heart disease and cancer to type 2 diabetes. The development of the disease does not happen overnight, of course, what which means that children who are overweight today may develop diabetes in 10 years or so, when they reach adolescence or enter adulthood.
Additionally, overweight or obese children are more likely to become overweight or obese adults, so those who escape a diabetes diagnosis in their youth are still at higher risk as adults, assuming they are still overweight. And adding to the vicious cycle is the fact that babies born to women with type 2 diabetes are also at increased risk of type 2 diabetes, suggesting the diabetes trend among young people could soon start to skyrocket even more.
Prevention and early intervention are key
Children are at risk of type 2 diabetes for many of the same reasons as adults, with a poor diet that focuses on refined sodas, sweets and fast food, and processed junk, and lack of exercise among the main culprits. Not only will this increase your child’s risk of becoming overweight or obese, but it can also lead directly to diabetes.
As a parent, therefore, you can play an important role in helping your child avoid this life-threatening disease by instilling and modeling healthy lifestyle choices. Among them, try:
- Dining with family.Sitting down to a healthy, balanced meal each night is one of the best ways to get your kids to eat well. Limit soda, fast food, and other junk foods.
- Promotion of physical activity.Young children shouldn’t have to set aside special time for “exercise”: they should naturally get plenty of physical activity playing outside with friends, riding bikes with the family, or walking the dog.
- Avoid rewarding your children with food.This prepares them to use food (and often unhealthy food) to meet their emotional needs.
- Limit TV and video game time.Not only will this reduce the number of junk food ads your child sees, but it will also help discourage sedentary behavior. If all else fails, at least try active video games.
If your child has already been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or is showing signs of high blood sugar, early intervention is key. A knowledgeable healthcare professional can help guide you on how to prevent, manage, and ultimately reverse diabetes through lifestyle interventions along with identifying the unique underlying causes of your child’s condition.
1. ABC News March 23, 2007, Findings Presented at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, Toronto