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New research predicts the number of children living with type 2 diabetes could dramatically increase in the near future. Phynart Studio/Getty Images
  • A new report predicts a dramatic surge in the number of children who have either type 1 or type 2 diabetes over the next 37 years.
  • Some experts, including from the CDC, say the information is a wake-up call, but some doctors caution that the study’s design may inflate the numbers.
  • Experts say there are ways to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The number of people under 20 living with diabetes could skyrocket over the next 37 years, according to a new report.

The study, published in Diabetes Care, is based on modeling that forecasts a rise in diabetes cases in the under-20 crowd from 2017-2060.

On the high end, type 2 diabetes could surge nearly 700% to 220,000 in people 20 and younger — a startling number when you consider the CDC currently lists being 45 and older as a risk factor for the disease.

Type 1 diabetes, which is more commonly diagnosed in childhood and adolescence, could rise 65% to 306,000.

In total, the research projects that 526,000 people under 20 may have type 1 or type 2 diabetes by 2060 compared to 213,000 individuals in the same age group in 2017.

However, the projection is just that — a projection. But the researchers noted that even if the rate of new diabetes diagnosis in this age group stayed stagnant over the next nearly four decades, it would still account for increases for both diabetes types (almost 70% for type 2 and almost 3% for type 1).

“This new research should serve as a wake-up call for all of us,” CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Dr. Debra Houry, said in a news release. “It’s vital that we focus our efforts to ensure all Americans, especially our young people, are the healthiest they can be.”

Kimberly Gomer MS, RD/LDN, a Florida-based registered dietitian and the director of nutrition at Body Beautiful Miami, calls the statistics “sobering.”

“The life challenges and risks of diabetes for each person and their family, along with the economic and healthcare costs associated with those health problems, is astounding,” Gomer says.

Experts shared their thoughts on the study, reasons behind the potential surge, and ways parents can help their children reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes.

Researchers used a mathematical model and data from the SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth study, which was funded by the CDC and National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The researchers considered two different scenarios while making their projections, explains Beata Rydyger, RHN, a registered nutritionist based in Los Angeles, CA, and clinical nutritional advisor to Zen Nutrients. They were:

  1. A scenario in which the number of new cases between 2017 and 2060 remain consistent with current rates.
  2. A scenario in which the number of new cases during this time period increases at the same rate seen from 2002 to 2017.

However, one expert says the study’s flawed design led to sky-high projections.

“The problem is that if you have wide confidence intervals, that is, variations in the data, then the projection will be markedly on this higher side,” says Dr. Benjamin U. Nwosu, FAAP, the chief of endocrinology at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York. “They failed to stratify the children into obese and non-obese groups.”

Instead, researchers focused on non-modifiable risk factors like race and ethnicity. If they put the two groups into obese and non-obese, Nwosu does not believe the group of non-obese children would see a predicted uptick in cases since obesity is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

“We need projection studies that focus on modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors that provide biological drivers that policymakers can address easily,” Nwosu said.

It remains to be seen whether the projections are off. However, if they’re correct, the CDC noted that many factors could play into the surge, including an increase in childhood obesity and maternal diabetes. The latter ups the risk of diabetes in kids.

A 2022 study indicated that the percentage of kindergarten children with a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) decreased from 73% in 1998 to 69% in 2010. Black children had the highest obesity rate increase — almost 1 in 10 (29%) more were obese when they started fifth grade.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped current numbers either.

Another 2022 study of more than 432,000 children ages 2 to 19 suggested that the rate of BMI increases almost doubled during the pandemic compared to the same period before the pandemic.

Children who were more overweight or obese were more likely to experience a faster BMI increase. The CDC has also reported that the percentage of people entering pregnancy with type 1 or type 2 diabetes increased by 37% from 2000 to 2010.

Rydyger agrees that an increase in childhood obesity and diabetes in pregnant people could contribute to the surge. She also says technology may be exacerbating issues.

“With the rise in technology, levels of stress and anxiety have been increasing, along with poor sleep patterns and lack of exercise, some of which may contribute to diabetes,” Rydyger says.

A 2017 study of children ages 8 to 17 suggested that screentime before bed was linked to poor sleep quality and elevated BMI.

A 2021 systematic review of children ages 0 to 15 indicated that the use of electronic media was associated with reduced sleep time.

For the most recent study, it’s important to note that researchers looked at two markedly different types of diabetes: Type 1 and type 2.

“Those who have type 1 are unable to produce any insulin,” Gomer says. “They are still insulin resistant and have the same potential health issues if their blood sugar is not controlled as in type 2, but their source is different – they have had an autoimmune reaction – their body attacks itself by mistake.”

As a result of this reaction, insulin-making cells in the pancreas get destroyed.

The CDC lists family history and age as the two risk factors, saying that it’s usually (but not always) diagnosed in children, teens, or young adults.

There is currently no known way to prevent type 1 diabetes, according to the CDC.

On the other hand, type 2 diabetes typically develops in people 45 and older. Other risk factors include:

  • being overweight
  • being physically active three or fewer times per week
  • family history

Nwosu takes issue with the model and projections from the latest study, but he notes that discussing and reducing the risk for diabetes is important, especially because it can increase the risk for other health conditions such as:

  • hypertension
  • dyslipidemia
  • stroke
  • heart disease
  • kidney disease
  • eye disease

Without a known cause for type 1 diabetes, it’s challenging to discuss risk reduction. But experts share there are evidence-based ways to lower the likelihood someone will develop type 2 diabetes. Nwosu says maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise is critical.

Rydyger agrees and encourages parents to:

  • stock their kitchens and plan meals rich in unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods “like fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and fats.”
  • exercising together regularly. The CDC recommends that children ages 6 to 17 get 60 minutes of physical activity per day.
  • limit screentime
  • encouraging activities that boost mental health

“Such a rapid rise in diabetes among young people is alarming and should serve as a wake-up call to better focus preventive efforts on young people,” Rydyger says.