Type 2 diabetes used to be called “adult-onset diabetes” for a reason — it occurred in middle-aged adults primarily and rarely, if ever, in children. But within the last decade, a serious change in diabetes trends made the description “adult-onset” no longer applicable, because adult-onset diabetes is becoming increasingly common in children.
An estimated 3,700 Americans under 20 are diagnosed with what is now more commonly referred to as simply “type 2” diabetes every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Because type 2 diabetes in this young of an age group is such a new phenomenon, no one knows for sure just what health toll the disease will take, but given its long list of associated risks, which are dangerous enough when they first begin in your 50s or 60s, it could be significant.
Heart Attacks and Kidney Problems in Their 20s and 30s?
Diabetes is known to quadruple your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. It’s the leading cause of blindness and kidney failure in the United States. It also significantly increases your risk of high blood pressure, nervous system damage, gum disease and lower-limb amputations.
These statistics are primarily for people who develop diabetes in their middle-age years and beyond, and it stands to reason that the longer a person has diabetes, the worse the complications may become. So it’s possible that a generation of children with diabetes could be facing a slew of formerly “adult” diseases, like high blood pressure and heart disease, while they’re still in their youth.
No One Knows How Many Kids are at Risk
Under 4,000 new diagnoses of type 2 diabetes in kids under 20 each year may not seem like that high of a number, but it’s likely that a far greater number of American youth are teetering on the edge of a diabetes diagnosis than initially meets the eye.
Estimates of undiagnosed diabetes are unavailable for children, but consider this: already, 24 million Americans have diabetes, but one-quarter of them do not know they have it. An estimated 57 million also have pre-diabetes, a stepping-stone to the actual disease, and again many do not know it. This is because symptoms often develop slowly, sometimes over a period years, and may be easy to miss. Some people also have no symptoms at all.
Given that more than twice the number of U.S. adults that have diabetes are suffering from “silent” pre-diabetes, it’s likely that an untold number of U.S. kids also have pre-diabetes and are only months or years away from a full-blown diabetes diagnosis.
Further, the number of children with diabetes is growing at an alarming rate. In one nationwide study of children’s hospital discharge records from 1997, 2000 and 2003, rates of hospitalizations for type 2 diabetes 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 aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years increased from 5.0% to 18.1%.”
As in adults, excess weight in kids increases their risk of related complications ranging from heart disease and cancer to type 2 diabetes. Disease development does not occur overnight, of course, which means that kids who are overweight today may develop diabetes 10 years or so down the line, when they reach their teen years or enter young adulthood.
Further, overweight or obese kids are more likely to become overweight or obese adults, so those who escape a diabetes diagnosis in their youth are still at increased risk as adults, assuming they’re still overweight. And adding to the vicious cycle is the fact that babies born to women with type 2 diabetes are at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes as well, which suggests the diabetes trend among youth may soon start to skyrocket even higher.
Prevention and Early Intervention are Key
Children are at risk of type 2 diabetes for many of the same reasons as adults, with poor diet that is focused on soda, sweets and refined processed junk and fast foods, and lack of exercise among the top culprits. Not only will this increase your child’s risk of becoming overweight or obese, but it can also lead to diabetes directly.
As a parent, you can therefore play an important role in helping your child to avoid this potentially deadly disease by instilling, and modeling, healthy lifestyle choices. Among them, try:
- Eating dinner as a family.Sitting down to a healthy, balanced meal each night is one of the best ways to get your kids to eat right. Limit soda, fast food and other junk foods.
- Encouraging physical activity.Young kids shouldn’t have to set aside special time to “exercise” — they should be getting plenty of physical activity naturally by playing outdoors with friends, riding bikes with the family or taking the dog for a walk.
- Avoiding rewarding your kids with food.This sets them up to use food (and typically unhealthy foods) to satisfy their emotional needs.
- Limiting TV and video game time.This will not only cut down on the number of junk-food advertisements your child sees, but it will also help to discourage sedentary behavior. If all else fails, at least give active video games a try.
If your child has already been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or is showing signs of high blood sugar levels, early intervention is key. A knowledgeable health care practitioner can help guide you on how to prevent, manage and ultimately reverse diabetes using lifestyle interventions along with identifying the unique underlying causes of the condition in your child.
1. ABC News March 23, 2007, Findings presented at the 2007 annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, in Toronto