Type 2 diabetes – the lifestyle-related kind – is on the rise among adolescents. This trend is particularly concerning because type 2 diabetes will follow these young people into adulthood, increasing the chance for lifelong health challenges. The good news is that diet and exercise changes can change the course of this serious disease.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, where your body doesn’t use insulin properly. Your pancreas makes extra insulin to make up for this deficiency. Unfortunately, over time your pancreas isn’t able to keep up and can’t make enough insulin to keep your blood glucose at a normal level.
Dr. Kenneth Snow, M.D., medical director at Aetna says type 2 diabetes is a significant health risk for children.
“If blood sugar levels stay too high for too long, it can damage someone’s heart, eyes, kidneys, nerves and even their teeth and gums,” Snow said. “Since young people with diabetes have so many years of life ahead, the need for good blood glucose control is extra important to prevent future complications.”
While the incidence of diabetes has continued to rise over the last 30 years, obesity has plateaued in children under the age of 12, according to recent research.
Many children do not have symptoms whey they first develop diabetes. Symptoms only develop when blood glucose climbs to higher levels.
“With type 2 diabetes, the major risk factors for children include being overweight, getting little or no physical activity and having an immediate relative with the disease,” Snow said. Other risk factors for children include race and having a mother who developed diabetes during pregnancy.
When children do have symptoms, the most common include an increase in thirst, increase in the frequency of urination and blurred vision. Type 2 diabetes is diagnosed by testing the level of glucose in the blood.
“Often times symptoms can go unnoticed and will seem obvious only after a child has been diagnosed,” Snow said. “Being aware of the major risk factors for type 2 diabetes can help parents be proactive about the entire family’s health.”
“Eating well and being active are two of the best ways to keep your children healthy and to help prevent or delay type 2 diabetes,” Snow said. “For overweight children, even a modest amount of weight loss can help prevent or delay diabetes.”
Getting the entire family involved can create an environment that encourages healthier living. The key, Snow says, is to take away the temptations so everyone in the household is making healthier dietary choices. Some easy trade-offs include water instead of soda, fruits and vegetables instead of junk food, and stocking the kitchen with healthy snacks like grapes, apples, carrots or plain popcorn.
Only one-third of high school students get the recommended levels of physical activity that they should be getting.
More exercise and activity are also key. Children and teens should get 60 minutes a day of play with moderate to vigorous activity each day.
If that sounds like a big time commitment, consider that 8 to 18-year-old adolescents spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media including TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies.
A few quick ways to get kids moving more include: limiting screen time, going on walks, joining your local YMCA, taking the stairs instead of the elevator and parking further away from your destination.
“The changes don’t happen overnight,” Snow said. “It can take months to pick up new habits and keep them going. By setting realistic goals for the whole family, everyone can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”
For more information on children living with diabetes, visit the American Diabetes Association.