Type 1 Diabetes on the Rise

For years, public health officials in the United States — and around the world — have been concerned about rising rates of Type 2 diabetes. While the causes of Type 2 diabetes are complex, rising rates of the disease have generally mirrored rising rates of obesity over the last few decades. But earlier this month, researchers reported a landmark discovery: For the first time in decades, the rate of new cases of Type 2 diabetes has been confirmed as falling, not rising.

While this is great news, it didn’t take long for bad news about diabetes rates to come along. Even though Type 2 diabetes is apparently on the decline, Type 1 diabetes is on the rise — and researchers have no easy explanations for what might be causing this trend.

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For a study published earlier this month in the journal Diabetes Care, researchers analyzed a large database of U.S. commercial insurance claims to look for evidence of Type 1 diabetes in children and teenagers. As noted in a HealthDay article on the study, they found that the rate of Type 1 diabetes in this population has risen from 1.5 cases per 1,000 people in 2002 to 2.3 cases per 1,000 people in 2013 — an increase of almost 60%.

As the article notes, this rise in Type 1 diabetes in the United States is part of a larger worldwide trend. The researchers also found a large increase in kidney damage among children and teens with Type 1 diabetes, but some or most of this increase can probably be explained by more widespread testing of kidney function at a younger age. Overall rates of Type 1 diabetes, on the other hand, are highly unlikely to be explained by better detection because the disease is so noticeable — and deadly — if it’s left untreated. Initial symptoms of Type 1 diabetes include excessive thirst and urination, fatigue and weakness, extreme hunger, unexplained weight loss, and blurred vision.

One expert quoted in the HealthDay article speculates that a reason for the increase in Type 1 diabetes may lie in our guts: The microbiome, or the collection of bacteria that naturally lives in our digestive tracts, can become less robust and diverse due to use of antibiotics, eating processed foods, and being born by C-section (since the birth canal passes healthy bacteria to a baby). These changes in gut bacteria may change how the immune system functions, leading to an attack on the beta cells of the pancreas and causing Type 1 diabetes in some people.

Another explanation may lie in the level of toxins we’re exposed to in the environment. As we noted here at Diabetes Flashpoints several years ago in an interview with a noted author, thousands of new chemicals are developed each year in the United States — for various uses — without long-term testing to confirm their safety. A certain level of exposure to some of these chemicals may, over time, cause the immune system to become overactive and mistakenly attack the body’s own cells — causing Type 1 diabetes and a range of other autoimmune diseases.

What’s your reaction to the finding that Type 1 diabetes is very much on the rise — should the federal government, or private research institutions, provide more funding for research on the causes of Type 1 diabetes? Or should research focus instead on finding a cure or breakthrough treatments for the condition, to eliminate the risks associated with taking insulin and the long-term complications of the disease? Do you think more can be done to ensure than people have a healthy microbiome, or to reduce our exposure to toxins that may lead to autoimmune diseases? Leave a comment below!