Diabetes at an Early Age

Posted on: March 28th, 2013 by Kelli

Kyuri Lee is currently a senior majoring in Human Biology, Health, and Society and minoring in Global Health at Cornell University.

Recently, my TweetDeck has been flooded with more news articles on adolescent health and the childhood obesity epidemic.  As I’ve been reading and researching more in-depth about childhood obesity, it was alarming to read that cases for type II diabetes in adolescents increased by 21% from 2001-2009 (SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth study).  A little over a month ago, Pediatrics published the first guidelines for children with type II diabetes.  A couple of weeks ago, First Lady Michelle Obama joined her first ever Google+ hangout for the three-year anniversary celebration of the “Let’s Move” health initiative—an initiative with a mission to reduce childhood obesity.

Obesity and related diseases have been rapidly increasing in the US and around the world, mostly among adults 40 years of age and older.  Adults living with diabetes can definitely testify to the challenges of living with diabetes—checking blood glucose daily, taking appropriate medicine, and making lifestyle changes including following a rigid diet and exercise plan.  Diabetes is also a leading cause of kidney failure, lower-limb amputations and blindness, heart disease and stroke.  Now imagine taking all of that on as a child.

According to SEARCH findings, there were 3,600 youths newly diagnosed with type II diabetes annually between 2002-2005, a rate of new type II diabetes cases of 8.5 per 100,000 adolescents.  Behind this increasing rate of new type II diabetes cases is the rising epidemic of childhood obesity, a major risk factor in developing type II diabetes, and statistics now tells us that about 17% of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese.  Reducing childhood obesity must be our primary goal if we want to prevent the rise of new type II diabetes cases. It is crucial to keep in mind that once a child is diagnosed with type II diabetes, there are serious long-term health complications, even though diabetes is controllable with diet and exercise.  As a child, adopting a new lifestyle with a new diet and exercise plan proves much more difficult than as an adult.  Dr. Francine Kaufman, former president of American Diabetes Association, stated in an NBC news article that “over 90 percent [of children] need medication and only under 10 percent can actually be treated with what we call lifestyle mainly because so few can actually invigorate such a difficult lifestyle change.”

As mentioned in my last blog post, the adolescent period is critical for future health outcomes.  And I think it’s important to see that having type II diabetes as a child doesn’t only mean adverse health outcomes related to diabetes in the future; but that other major social and emotional health implications come with having a serious illness at such an early age. In promoting a healthier lifestyle for children, Mrs. Obama emphasized in the recent Google+ hangout that it’s important to not make this an issue about appearance, but that we must talk to children about how they feel inside.  Adolescence can be a very carefree period in one’s life, and most children just want to play.  But with diabetes, a child will be limited in many ways that a child without diabetes will not be.  As health always affects other aspects of our lives, it will inevitably affect a child’s learning, social interactions, and everyday activities.

Another way to look at this is to see that treating diabetes cost the nation $245 billion in 2012.  As cases of diabetes in children are rising, so surely will these costs rise as well.  And if it’s impacting the nation in such a significant way, it must also be impacting individuals at the micro level, and this all ultimately affects the development of a child.

Parents who adopt a healthy lifestyle at an early stage in a child’s life can play a critical role in ending this growing trend.  Many studies in the past have shown over and over again that parents have a huge influence during a child’s development. Parents play a vital role in reducing childhood obesity, and thus, preventing rising cases of diabetes.  And again, I quote Mrs. Obama: “we as adults have to make sure we are taking ownership as well and doing everything we can to make the journey easier for [our children]”.  For more information, you can visit the Let’s Move! initiative online.  Anyone who is involved in a child’s life must take action now, however small or big, to address the growing problem of type II diabetes in children