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Experts say exercise and a healthy diet are two key ways to reduce prediabetes among children. Getty Images
  • Researchers say nearly 1 in 5 adolescents in the United States now has prediabetes.
  • The condition can lead to more serious ailments such as type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease.
  • Experts say the rise in prediabetes among children coincides with the obesity epidemic that began in the 1980s.
  • Parents are urged to provide their children with healthy, balanced meals and encourage them to exercise.

Diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and high blood pressure all sound like diseases of middle age and older adults.

But they’re increasingly becoming health concerns for children, too.

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly 1 in 5 adolescents in the United States has prediabetes — chronically elevated blood sugar levels that can put children at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease.

Prediabetes “is highly prevalent in U.S. adolescents and young adults, especially in male individuals and in people with obesity,” concluded the study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

“Moreover, adolescents and young adults with prediabetes also present an unfavorable cardiometabolic risk profile and are therefore at increased risk of not only developing type 2 diabetes but also cardiovascular diseases.”

Specifically, adolescents and young adults with prediabetes had significantly higher non-high density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, systolic blood pressure, central adiposity (waist fat), and lower insulin sensitivity than individuals with normal glucose tolerance, according to researchers from the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and the Department of Public Health and Epidemiology at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom.

The survey, which involved 5,786 adolescents (ages 12-18 years) and young adults (ages 19-34), was touted as the most comprehensive epidemiological study of youth prediabetes yet conducted.

The findings stand alongside studies showing an unprecedented rise in type 2 diabetes in the past decade.

Type 2 diabetes was once referred to as “adult onset” diabetes because it was so rare among young people, while type 1 diabetes — the inherited form of the illness — was considered a childhood disease.

Now, those lines have been blurred.

The study authors said the research “highlights the need for primary and secondary prevention efforts tailored to the young segment of the U.S. population.”

An estimated 1 in 3 adults in the United States have prediabetes, researchers said.

“Prediabetes is very prevalent in the U.S., with about 85 million Americans suffering from this condition, and 80 percent do not even know it,” Dr. Anis Rehman, an assistant professor in the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine who writes the blog District Endocrine, told Healthline.

“It used to be that adolescents didn’t get type 2 diabetes,” Linda J. Andes, PhD, a mathematical statistician at the CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation and lead study author, told Healthline. “It’s pretty alarming that prediabetes is showing up among adolescents and is much more prevalent than we would expect.”

Andes said there seems to be a “strong correlation” between prediabetes and weight when it comes to children and young adults, as well as with older adults.

“There has been an obesity epidemic in the U.S. at the same time the rates of prediabetes have been rising. That’s not a coincidence,” she said.

Andes said that while prediabetes among young people might not lead immediately to diabetes and related health problems, it could cause problems down the road — and perhaps at a younger age than would otherwise be expected.

“Parents need to be aware of this, particularly if their children are overweight or showing sensitivity to sugar,” she said.

She advised concerned parents to get their children’s blood sugar and BMI checked by a doctor.

Experts say that in addition to A1C levels, physicians should check fasting blood sugar and glucose tolerance to identify kids at risk of prediabetes.

When it comes to children and diabetes, it’s an all-in-the-family concern.

“This is a family condition because these kids are not buying their own food,” Lucille Hughes, MSN/Ed, CDE, BC-ADM, DNP, a fellow of the American Association of Diabetes Educators and director of diabetes education at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, New York, told Healthline.

She added that children with overweight rarely have two lean parents. At least one if not both parents usually have obesity, she said.

Hughes said the epidemic of obesity, prediabetes, and diabetes can be traced to the 1980s, when active forms of work began to be supplanted by sedentary jobs involving long hours in front of computer screens.

At the same time, video gaming began to replace active play among children.

“The response I get from 100 percent of parents is, ‘What am I supposed to do about it?’” said Hughes.

She recommends limiting screen time, saying parents should insist that children get physically active with programs such as school sports when it’s practically and economically feasible.

Cooking home meals rather than eating fast food and prepared food also can reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes, she said.

Families with two working parents can still plan easy meals using a slow cooker or instant pot, for example, said Hughes.

“Parents have it harder in this generation, but that’s no excuse for letting your kids get sick,” she said.

“Eat a heart healthy, low-carbohydrate, and low-calorie diet, weight loss, and portion control, exercise, and an active lifestyle are some of the crucial steps we need to take” as a society to reduce prediabetes, added Rehman.

“Healthy eating habits should start in early childhood or earlier,” Audrey Koltun, RD, a dietitian in Plainview, New York, told Healthline.

“Families do need nutrition education at each yearly physical,” she said. “Topics such as eating healthy on a budget for those who say it is too expensive to eat healthy should be a priority.”

“I am very concerned about the future health of the adolescents and young adults referred to in this article,” said Koltun. “I am concerned that their parents will be taking care of them due to illnesses and possibly outliving their own children.”