When kids come up against that common eat right and exercise
refrain, they may be all too apt to brush health concerns aside as something only adults have to consider. Heart issues, kidney problems, and especially type 2 diabetes — those words have an “adults only” connotation.
However, the potential to develop type 2 diabetes in adulthood or even earlier comes with a clear link to overweight and obesity at young ages. With it comes an elevated risk for associated health complications, too. While research has indicated some alarming trends, there are also promising findings that hint at the opportunity for individuals to make sustainable change.
Sustainable change isn’t about simple calorie counting — where those calories come from can have just as big an impact on overall health. Families can have fun experimenting with recipes and food choices to give kids the power to view nutrition as a holistic part of their everyday routine.
Prediabetes and Type 2 Diabetes Cases on the Rise
Type 2 diabetes, a disease once known as adult-onset diabetes, has started to impact young people more and more. Recent research paints an increasingly unsettling picture.
A 2019 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found nearly 1 in 5 adolescents are already living with prediabetes, with the percentage of kids between the ages of 12 and 18 with prediabetes higher in those with obesity. Prediabetes, a health condition characterized by higher-than-normal blood sugar levels, can lead to type 2 diabetes and may offer an early window into what’s to come.
But it’s not just prediabetes acting as a glimpse of a problematic but distant future. Researchers are also seeing a shift in type 2 diabetes prevalence in youths. A CDC report from 2020, for example, found the rate of new type 2 diabetes cases for young people under 20 years old in the United States increasing 4.8% per year.
Obesity and Overweight As Diabetes Risk Factors
Though not the only factors, obesity and overweight are helping to spur the rise in type 2 diabetes among children and adolescents. A 2005 review in the journal Pediatrics examined the ongoing trend. The review noted that having overweight or obesity actually serves as the biggest risk factor for youth to develop type 2 diabetes, highlighting weight loss and prevention of weight gain as strategies to combat eventual disease development.
Indeed, as the number of overweight and obese children has increased, so too has the number of type 2 diabetes cases in younger people. Early diabetes development means affected young people may start experiencing complications associated with diabetes at an earlier age as well.
What Happens When Young People Develop Type 2 Diabetes?
Younger diabetes diagnosis and the potential for complications at an earlier age speak to the heart of the looming public health problem.
An earlier type 2 diabetes diagnosis goes hand in hand with greater risk. Earlier development means longer exposure to the disease, and young people who develop type 2 diabetes may need treatments like insulin earlier in life. Evidence also exists hinting at early-onset type 2 diabetes as a more aggressive form of the disease.
Children and adolescents with type 2 diabetes face health issues similar to their adult counterparts, but may experience these complications starting at an earlier age, according to the review in Pediatrics. Cardiovascular complications, kidney issues, health problems that threaten the limbs — the list goes on. Even if the diabetes diagnosis doesn’t come during childhood or adolescence, kids who are overweight or obese are still at a higher risk to develop the disease eventually.
Research Highlights Promising Opportunities for Change
The news isn’t all bad, though. Consider a study by Bjerregaard et al published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2018.
Acknowledging that children who have overweight are at an increased risk for type 2 diabetes in adulthood, the study looked at Danish men who had their weights and heights measured at 7 and 13 years old and then again in early adulthood, defined in the study as between the ages of 17 and 26. The researchers sought to determine if children who were overweight at a young age would continue to have an increased risk of developing adult type 2 diabetes if they no longer were overweight at puberty or later.
The study uncovered promising statistics. Men who maintained a normal weight in early adulthood after losing weight between 7 and 13 years old had a risk of type 2 diabetes similar to men who had normal weight at all ages. While men who lost weight between 13 years old and early adulthood had a higher diabetes risk than men who had never been overweight, the risk was still lower than in men who were overweight at all ages included in the study.
Reversing the Trend Starts At Home
Focusing on being overweight in puberty as an important factor ultimately increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life, the New England Journal of Medicine study indicates just how important learning healthy habits at a young age can be.
Family factors — such as food available at home and food preferences of family members — can influence what kids eat, and these factors have been associated with rising obesity cases. On the flip side, if kids learn about healthy eating, positive nutritional choices, and exercising at home, those lessons can carry over into choices kids make beyond the walls of their home.
Being overweight or obese aren’t the only risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes, and a holistic, empowering approach to any weight loss recommendations for kids is certainly a must. Still, the clear link means it’s something kids and the adults in their lives should pay attention to. Type 2 diabetes comes with the potential for complications in childhood and beyond — and the risks only increase with earlier disease onset. Yes, the stakes are high, but research indicates the lasting, positive impact that changes to nutrition and activity can have