For decades, type 2 diabetes was considered an adults-only condition. In fact, type 2 diabetes was once called adult-onset diabetes. But what was once a disease mainly faced by adults is becoming more common in children.
Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition that affects how the body metabolizes sugar (glucose). Over 5,000 people under the age of 20 were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes between 2008 and 2009. Until 10 years ago, type 2 diabetes accounted for less than 3% of all newly diagnosed diabetes cases in adolescents; it now comprises 45% of all such cases. It’s more common in those aged 10-19 and in non-Caucasian populations, including African Americans, Native Americans, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics.
Being overweight is closely tied to the development of type 2 diabetes. Overweight children have an increased likelihood of insulin resistance. As the body struggles to regulate insulin, high blood sugar leads to a number of potentially serious health problems. In the past 30 years, obesity in children has doubled and obesity in adolescents has quadrupled, according to the CDC.
Genetics may also play a role. For instance, the risk of type 2 diabetes increases if one parent or both parents has the condition.
Symptoms of type 2 diabetes are not always easy to spot. In most cases, the disease develops gradually, making the symptoms hard to detect. Many people do not feel any symptoms. In other cases, children may not show any obvious signs.
If you believe your child has diabetes, keep an eye out for these signs:
- Excessive fatigue: If your child seems extraordinarily tired or sleepy, their body may not have enough sugar to properly fuel their normal body functions.
- Excessive thirst: Children who have excessive thirst may have high blood sugar levels.
- Frequent urination: Excessive sugar levels in the blood stream can pull fluid from the body’s tissues. This may leave your child running to the bathroom for frequent restroom breaks.
- Increased hunger: Children with diabetes don’t have enough insulin to provide fuel for their body’s cells. Food becomes the next best source of energy, so children may experience hunger more frequently.
- Slow-healing sores: Sores or infections that are resistant to healing or slow to resolve may be a sign of type 2 diabetes.
- Darkened skin: If your child has type 2 diabetes, you may notice areas of darkened skin, also called acanthosis nigricans. Insulin resistance can cause skin to darken, most commonly in the armpits and neck.
Type 2 diabetes in children requires testing by a pediatrician to be properly identified. If your child’s doctor suspects type 2 diabetes, they will likely perform a blood glucose test, a glucose tolerance test, or A1C test. Sometimes it takes several months to get a positive diagnosis for type 2 diabetes for a child.
A child may have an increased risk for type 2 diabetes if:
- They are overweight or obese. Kids with a body mass index (BMI) above the 85th percentile are more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- A sibling or other close relative also has type 2 diabetes.
- They show signs of insulin resistance, including dark patches of skin.
- They are part of a racial group that has a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes. Children of Asian or Pacific Islander, Native American, Latino, or African descent are at increased risk for diabetes.
Treatment for children with type 2 diabetes is similar to treatment for adults. The treatment plan will vary according to the growth needs and specific concerns of your child.
Daily home blood sugar monitoring will be important to make sure that your child’s blood sugar is never at a dangerous level. A home blood sugar meter will help you check this. Teachers, coaches, and other people who supervise your child should all be aware of your child’s treatment for type 2 diabetes.
Your child’s doctor will also give you dietary and exercise recommendations to keep your child healthy. You will need to pay careful attention to the amount of carbohydrates that your child takes in during the day. Participating in approved, supervised forms of physical exercise every day will help your child stay within a healthy weight range and lessen the negative effects of type 2 diabetes.
Children with type 2 diabetes are at a greater risk for serious health problems as they grow older. Vascular issues, such as heart disease, are a common complication for children with type 2 diabetes. Other complications, such as eye problems and nerve damage, may occur and progress faster in children with type 2 diabetes than in those with type 1 diabetes.
Weight control difficulties, high blood pressure, and hypoglycemia are also found in children with the diagnosis. Weakened eyesight and poor kidney function have also been found to occur over a lifetime of having type 2 diabetes.
Since diabetes is harder to diagnosis and treat in children, the outcomes for children with type 2 diabetes are not easy to predict. Type 2 diabetes in young people is a relatively new issue in medicine, and research into its causes, outcomes, and treatment strategies is still ongoing. Future studies are needed to analyze the long-term consequences of having type 2 diabetes from youth.
You can help children avoid diabetes by encouraging them to:
- Practice healthy habits. Children who eat well-balanced meals and limit their intake of sugar and refined carbs are less likely to become overweight and develop diabetes.
- Get moving. Regular exercise is important for preventing diabetes. Organized sports or neighborhood pick-up games are great ways to get kids moving and active. Limit television time and encourage outside play instead.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Healthy diet and exercise habits can help children maintain a healthy weight.
It’s also important to set a good example for children. Be active with your child and encourage good habits by demonstrating them yourself.