Can Children Get Type 2 Diabetes?

Smiling girl holds donut to illustrate risk of childhood obesity leading to type 2 diabetes

Diabetes is a condition that affects the body’s blood glucose levels. There are two main types of diabetes that are diagnosed in children and adults: type 1 and type 2. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can’t make enough insulin, which is a hormone that helps spread glucose (sugar) into the body’s cells to produce energy. Those diagnosed with type 1 diabetes are most often born with the condition.

Type 2 diabetes is diagnosed when the pancreas creates enough insulin, but the body won’t use it. This is referred to as insulin resistance. Diabetes affects the way the body makes and uses insulin. That means rising levels of blood glucose and, ironically, a body starved for energy.

In the United States, over 30 million Americans suffer from diabetes. In 2017, 18,000 children below the age of 20 were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and over 5,000 children were found to have type 2 diabetes. November is Diabetes Awareness Month–the perfect time to learn about a disease that affects so many people of all ages every day. If you believe your child is at risk of being diagnosed with diabetes here is what you need to know.

Child Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes

Once referred to as adult-onset diabetes, type 2 diabetes has become a more common diagnosis in children. This is because of rising levels of childhood obesity over the past twenty years. Most cases of childhood diabetes are diagnosed in puberty, though children can get it as young as 8 years old. There has also been an increase in mothers who are diagnosed with gestational diabetes during pregnancy. Gestational diabetes increases the risk for developing diabetes later in life in both the mother and her baby.

Children, most often girls, are also at an increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes if they have a family history for either diabetes or obesity. If your child is of African American, Hispanic, Asian American, Pacific Islander, or Native American descent, he/she also has a higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes as a child.

Obesity is linked with insulin resistance, the leading cause of type 2 diabetes. Childhood obesity affects around 12.7 million children and teenagers in the United States. As the childhood obesity epidemic grows, so do the number of children who become insulin resistant and go on to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Can Diabetes Type 2 Be Prevented?

Children with prediabetes are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. In prediabetes, blood glucose rises to levels approaching type 2 diabetes. If your child has prediabetes, the doctor may make recommendations to help lower your child’s blood glucose levels. Following the doctor’s recommendations may prevent your child from developing type 2 diabetes.

Encouraging children to eat healthier foods can help prevent the development of diabetes. Eating a diet low in carbohydrates with adequate protein and healthy fats, can reduce the risk of excess weight gain. Such a diet should also result in weight loss in children who have gained too much weight. Obesity is a major cause of type 2 diabetes development.

Another common type 2 diabetes prevention tactic is getting regular exercise sessions of around 30 minutes each, five days a week. Participating in physical activities can prevent not only diabetes, but many other serious health complications and diseases like, for instance, cancer. Limiting TV and video game time and encouraging children to be active reduces their risk for being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Healthy Activities Prevent Type 2 Diabetes

Here are some fun activities that can help prevent diabetes type 2 in children:

  • School sports like baseball, lacrosse, and soccer
  • Walking the family dog
  • Physical chores like shoveling snow and raking leaves
  • Walking or bike-riding to school
  • Physical family activities like hiking or sledding
  • Daily runs or walks
  • Dance or gymnastics class
  • Karate

Signs & Symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes

In the beginning stages of type 2 diabetes, signs and symptoms of the disease are uncommon. Only as time passes do the symptoms begin to appear. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Extreme Thirst
  • Frequent Hunger
  • Unexplained Weight Loss
  • Dry Mouth
  • Frequent Urination
  • Itchy Skin
  • Blurred Vision
  • Numbness or Tingling in Hands or Feet
  • Heavy Breathing
  • Slow Healing of Sores and Cuts
  • Darkened Skin in Armpits and Neck

Complications of Type 2 Diabetes

A diagnosis of type 2 diabetes can lead to complications that come on faster in children than in adults. Diabetes is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness from a group of eye conditions called diabetic eye disease. These conditions include diabetic retinopathy, diabetic macular edema, glaucoma, and cataracts, and affect most major portions of the eye. Other complications of diabetes can include coronary artery disease, stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, and sudden death.

Children at risk or already diagnosed with type 2 diabetes should receive an annual flu shot. The flu can increase the risk of diabetes-related complications. Any illness at all, in fact, can make diabetes more difficult to manage.

Children who are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes are also at risk for diabetes complications. For this reason, at-risk children should be screened for the disease on a regular basis. Early diagnosis means a chance to begin treatment as soon as possible. Early treatment of diabetes helps to prevent later complications from the disease.

Complications of Diabetes Treatment

Insulin therapy is often necessary to control type 2 diabetes. But as diabetic children and teens grow into young adults, the doctor may add further medication to their treatment plans. Some of these prescription drugs are known to have side effects far worse than the symptoms they are used to treat.

One such class of drugs is SGLT2 inhibitors. SGLT2 inhibitor medications regulate blood sugar levels by keeping the body from absorbing glucose back into the blood. Invokana is an example of an SGLT2 inhibitor. This drug has come under fire for increasing the risk of rare genital infections, lower-limb amputations, and ketoacidosis in adults over the age of 18 who use this medication.

Diabetes medications are often prescribed as part of an overall treatment plan. Ask your doctor about the possible side effects and complication of the various prescription drugs for diabetes. Having this information can help you decide see which medication is right for the child approaching adulthood.

What Can Parents Do?

A diagnosis of type 2 diabetes sounds scary. After all, diabetes, whether type 1 or type 2, cannot be cured. In spite of this fact, with proper management, most people with diabetes live a happy, healthy life. If your child or teen has been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, you can help manage the disease by encouraging your child to engage in physical activity and eat healthy meals.

If you believe your child is at risk for type 2 diabetes, there’s so much you can do to avoid that dreaded diagnosis. You can help your child fit in more exercise and other healthy activities. You can make sure your child eats right and loses weight. Most of all, if you notice any possible symptoms of diabetes in your child, you’ll want to speak to your child’s pediatrician right away. Early diagnosis and treatment are the best way to keep your child’s life as normal and as healthy as possible

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Author: Darian Carrow

As a consumer wellness investigator for Consumer Safety, Darian enjoys researching the latest consumer health & safety news. She has a passion for educating consumers to help them achieve their wellness goals. In her spare time, she likes to listen to music, watch movies, and travel.

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