Teens Need Healthy Habits to Head Off Diabetes

Healthnotes Newswire (June 8, 2006)—Not only are more teenagers overweight than ever before, but there is evidence that more of them have diabetes, too.

About 18 million people in the United States have diabetes, a chronic disease marked by high blood sugar (glucose) levels. People with type 1 diabetes don’t produce enough insulin (the hormone that signals when glucose needs to be stored), because of a problem with the pancreas. Type 1 diabetes usually develops in childhood. People with type 2 diabetes frequently produce lots of insulin, but their cells have become less sensitive to it. Whether there is too little insulin or too little response to insulin, the result is the same: soaring blood glucose levels. Over time, the extra circulating glucose causes irreversible damage to many tissues.

Type 2 diabetes is often referred to as adult-onset diabetes, but new research shows that its prevalence is growing in adolescents. The new study, published in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, is based on data collected for the 1999–2000 and 2001–2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. Out of 4,370 teenagers (12 to 19 years old) who participated in the surveys, 0.5% reported having diabetes. Of those who had diabetes, 71% of them had type 1 and 29% had type 2.

“Type 2 diabetes was once a condition only seen in adults,” the authors stated in their conclusion, “but this study provides evidence to support recent clinic-based reports and regional studies that point to an emerging problem of type 2 diabetes among US youth.”

The same study also looked at fasting blood glucose levels (taken after at least eight hours without eating) in 1,496 of the teenagers who did not have diabetes. More than 11% of them had unhealthy fasting blood glucose levels, which were high but not high enough to diagnose them with diabetes. These adolescents are considered to be at high risk for type 2 diabetes.

“We have been surprised at the number of people in their thirties presenting with type 2 diabetes recently,” said Ceil Furlong, a nurse and case manager at a health clinic that serves low-income people without health insurance. “I’ve always thought of this disease as one that affects much older people—in their sixties and older. These young people with diabetes surely had something going wrong before they were even adults. We’ve been pretty concerned about what we’re seeing and what it means for the future.”

The downward shift in the age of people with type 2 diabetes is the expected consequence of the rising rates of overweight and obesity in children and teens. Numerous studies have linked these trends to changes in kids’ habits over the last 30 years—especially increasing fast food consumption and number of hours spent idle in front of a television or computer screen.

“I think we need to take this on at the public health level, like we did with tobacco in the past,” Furlong commented. “Junk food is cheap, it’s kept at kids’ eye level in stores, marketing strategies target kids, and it all comes in huge sizes. We need to rein all of this in—get junk food out of kids’ reach and control marketing. Otherwise, we’re all going to be paying for the increasing rates of diseases like diabetes caused by the cultural promotion of unhealthy lifestyles and the societal lack of commitment to prevention.”

For now, healthcare professionals need to teach both parents and children how to avoid fast food and soft drinks and replace them with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, and encourage them to exercise every day. Such educational efforts could go a long way toward preventing type 2 diabetes in young people.

(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2006;160:523¬–8)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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