It has been many a pediatrician’s nightmare prediction: rising obesity rates are likely to cause an increase in type 2 diabetes in teens, in much the same way these two conditions are linked in adults.
And this fear has come to pass. Type 2 diabetes, unheard of in kids just a few decades ago (it used to be called adult-onset-diabetes for just that reason!), has become unexceptional in pediatric practice.
But what we’ve seen so far seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. A new article in Pediatrics looked at a group of about 3400 nationally representative teens (aged 12-19), and found that diabetes and pre-diabetes nearly tripled in less than 10 years, jumping from 9 percent in 1999-2000 to 23 percent in 2007-2008.
The authors, led by Ashleigh May, warn that these results should be interpreted cautiously: Diabetes and pre-diabetes were diagnosed by a single fasting blood sugar test. The true prevalence of type 2 diabetes in kids is hard to know unless blood tests are done because the disease can have little or no symptoms for a very long time. The numbers do look high, and it’s going to be interesting to see if other large-population studies corroborate them.
Teens at serious cardiovascular risk
High blood sugar wasn’t the only cardiovascular risk factor facing the teens in the study. Overweight and obesity were common – 16 percent of the kids were overweight and another 18 percent were obese.
On top of that, 14 percent of kids had pre-hypertension or hypertension, 22 percent had borderline or high LDL (bad) cholesterol, and 6 percent had low HDL (good) cholesterol.
All these above mentioned risk factors were seen much more frequently among the kids with overweight and obesity, in fact, among obese teens 61 percent had at least one cardiovascular risk factor on top of their weight status, and 8 percent of the obese teens had 3 or more of the tested risk factors. But even among normal weight teens 37 percent had a cardiovascular risk factor (the most common of which was high LDL), showing that even when teens aren’t overweight they can benefit from interventions promoting a better diet and more physical activity.
A bit of good news if I may: it seems like obesity rates have leveled off and they haven’t changed much during the 9 years covered in this study. For overweight and obesity to level off at a third of the pediatric population is of little comfort, though
Diabetes in teens carries extra burden
Kids with diabetes not only have more years to accumulate the disease’s serious complications – the longer one has diabetes the more likely heart, kidney, eye, nerve and other body systems are to suffer its consequences. Type 2 diabetes is also proving to be much harder to treat in young patients according to recent studies.
It doesn’t have to be so!
I assume that the vast majority of the kids in this study had pre-diabetes – a condition that if left unattended can, and often will, develop into diabetes (the article doesn’t differentiate between diabetic and pre-diabetic teens). But pre-diabetics can reverse their metabolic state with just modest weight loss and exercise.
And for all of us, type 2 diabetes is mostly a lifestyle disease. It is really up to us to feed kids better and help them become more active so they’re not doomed to develop totally preventable disease and disability as young adults.
What to do? HBO’s excellent Weight of the Nation looks at this complex issue in depth and with compassion. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend the Children in Crisis chapter (I actually think it’s a good idea to watch the chapters out of order – I found the first installment, Consequences, to be so depressing that I have a feeling some viewers might have just given up on both the series and on dealing with obesity before that chapter was over).
As Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director, says: The weight of the nation is not healthy. And to get it healthy, we’re all going to have to do our part.