If you think of children and diabetes, what comes to mind? Probably children who have Type 1 diabetes. And while children are more likely to get Type 1 diabetes than Type 2 diabetes, the prevalence of Type 2 in kids is steadily increasing. According to data from the SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth study from 2009, more than 168,000 children under the age of 20 have Type 1 diabetes, and more than 19,000 have Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes increased in 10- to 19-year-olds by over 30% between 2001 and 2009, primarily in African-American, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic white youth (not so much in Native Americans or Pacific Islanders, however). And girls are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than boys.
The explanation for the rising rates of Type 2 in children is pretty simple: weight. Or, to be more specific, overweight. Being overweight doubles a child’s risk of getting diabetes. One out of three children in the U.S. are considered to be overweight or obese. Why? We can thank, in part, technology for this. Children spend more time on their iPads, laptops, and desktops than ever before. Gone are the days of playing after school. Instead, kids spend much of their free time watching TV, playing video games, or using Facebook. In fact, it’s estimated that older children spend an average each day of 4.5 hours watching TV, 1.5 hours using the computer, and over 1 hour playing video games.
Another reason for kids being overweight is their food choices. Fast foods, unhealthy snacks, and a lack of structured meals are partly to blame.
Know the risk
If you have children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews, it’s important for you and your family to be aware of the diabetes risk factors, especially if the children are overweight. If you need a reminder, they include the following:
• Family history of diabetes
• Not getting enough physical activity
• Being of certain ethnic groups: Hispanic, African-American, Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander
• Impaired glucose tolerance or high fasting insulin levels
• Acanthosis nigricans (dark, velvety skin around the neck, under the arms, or in the groin area that may look like dirt)
If you were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes before the age of 50, your child has about a 1 in 7 chance of getting Type 2 diabetes, as well. If you were diagnosed after age 50, the risk is 1 in 13.
As with adults, many children with Type 2 diabetes don’t have symptoms. Diabetes may be diagnosed during a routine medical visit. But some children get symptoms, which include:
• Increased thirst
• Increased urination
• Unexplained weight loss
• Extreme hunger
• Blurred vision
• Cuts that are slow to heal
• Numbness or tingling in the feet or hands
Make sure your child sees a doctor if he is experiencing any of these symptoms.
Focus on prevention
If you have diabetes, it doesn’t mean that your child will develop it. And there are many overweight children who don’t get diabetes. However, it’s important to take steps to help keep your child healthy and active. Here are some tips that can help:
• Limit how much time your child spends watching TV, on the iPad or computer, or playing video games.
• Encourage your child to get outside and play or to take up a sport.
• Join the local YMCA and get your child involved in activities there. It helps to go as a family.
• Go bike riding or walking together. Sign up to do a diabetes walk or other walk or bike ride for charity in your community.
• Limit or avoid keeping sodas and fruit juices in the house. Also, limit sports drinks. These beverages are high in calories and carbohydrate.
• Encourage healthier snack foods like fruit, vegetables, yogurt, crackers, baked tortilla chips, or light popcorn.
• Involve your child in meal preparation. Kids are often more receptive to eating healthful food when they’ve contributed in some way to the meal.
• Reward your child for being active and eating well with nonfood rewards, such as going to a movie or having a sleepover with friends.
Make sure to talk with your child about his weight in a nonjudgmental way. Focus on positive steps and small changes that the whole family can take, especially around food and activity. Try to avoid dwelling on your child’s weight; rather, center conversations and actions on overall health. If your child does develop diabetes, look for support for your child and your family. The steps I listed above are still important to follow, but it’s helpful to get advice from doctors, dietitians, and diabetes educators. Support groups and online diabetes forums can be helpful for children with diabetes and their families, as well.