Twenty three percent of kids ages 12 to 19 in the U.S. now have diabetes or prediabetes, according to a study out today in the journal Pediatrics. A decade ago that figure was just nine percent.
Looking at risk factors for heart disease and stroke in adolescents, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined data on more than 3,300 adolescents participating in a national survey from 1999 to 2008. Along with the increase in diabetes, they found that:
• 61% of obese teens in the survey had one risk factor for cardiovascular disease – such as high LDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity or diabetes – besides their weight
• 49% of overweight teens had one additional cardiovascular risk factor
• 37% of normal-weight teens had at least one cardiovascular risk factor
“I think this is an eye opener,” says Steven Mittelman, M.D., Ph.D., of the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Center for Endocrinology, Diabetes & Metabolism, who was not involved in the study. “Parents really need to think about what their kids are eating and what their activity level is. Parents have to step up and help prevent these devastating diseases that last a lifetime.”
One of every three children with diabetes now has type 2 (which used to be called “adult-onset diabetes,” but is now far too common in children to merit that name), and Mittelman points out that the disease is not easily managed in kids. Adults with type 2 diabetes can improve their health with lifestyle changes and medications, but 50 percent of kids diagnosed with type 2 will end up on insulin within five years – and need it for the rest of their lives. “Over time that number will get worse, so eventually most teenagers diagnosed with type 2 diabetes will need insulin,” he says.
The prevalence of obesity among teens did not increase during the study period. “The prevalence of obesity and overweight really plateaued in the last 10 years,” says Mittelman, who credits public education about the obesity epidemic with spurring some progress. There are still far too many overweight kids, “but at least it’s not going up like it was 10 years ago,” he says.
His suggestions for parents looking to improve their kids health:
Pay attention during checkups. Doctors should be checking children’s height, weight and blood pressure at every visit, and taking the time to calculate Body Mass Index (BMI, a measure of height related to weight) for patients. Under some circumstances, they should also test kids’ cholesterol levels, and test for diabetes.
Know your family history. Let your pediatrician know if your child’s parents or grandparents have high cholesterol, diabetes or heart disease. Find out what medications your child’s grandparents take, and share that information as well. “That helps us know what might run in the family,” Mittelman says.
Check out resources that get kids moving. Mittelman recommends the CDC childhood obesity page (cdc.gov/obesity/childhood), Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign (LetsMove.gov) and your local YMCA (YMCA.org) as great places to start. “I often send my parents who say they have a tough time getting their kids to exercise [to the YMCA],” he says. “They really are focused on healthy weight.”
Mittelman is quick to point out that heart disease and diabetes are just two of the many life-threatening conditions caused by obesity. He specializes in studying the connections between obesity and cancer (and says that 20% of cancers in the U.S. are now caused by obesity). Studies show that many kids carry their weight problems into adulthood, but Mittelman and other experts consider adolescence a key window for change. And much of that change is up to moms and dads.
“Parents do have the power,” he says.