Diabetes Cases are Increasing in American Youth

Diabetes Cases are Increasing in American Youth
June 26, 2017

Youth diabetes is on the rise in the United States, according to a ten-year-long, multistate study. Researchers from medical centers around the country, including UNC School of Medicine, saw yearly increases in the number of children with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes during each year of the study.

Diabetes is already one of the most common chronic conditions in the United States, affecting roughly 30 million Americans. As there is no cure for diabetes, the growing numbers of youth cases could result in health complications and shorter lifespans for millions more Americans in the decades to come.

Major Symptoms of DiabetesThe chair of the nutrition department at UNC School of Medicine, Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, co-led the study, which surveyed children in North and South Carolina, Ohio, Washington, Southern California and on reservations in Arizona and New Mexico. Out of more than 5 million children between ages five and 20, the researchers found more than 11,000 diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and more than 2,800 with type 2 diabetes between 2002 and 2012. 

On average, the number of kids with type 1 diabetes increased by 1.8 percent annually, and the number of kids with type 2 diabetes increased by 4.1 percent annually. Those increases affected children of various races and genders differently. Cases of type 1 diabetes increased most among Hispanic youths (4.2 percent annually) while type 2 diabetes affected Native American children most (8.9 percent annually).

While this study does not detail how to prevent this increase, it highlights a few unsettling trends and target areas. For type 1 diabetes, any increase at all is something to watch, as type 1 diabetes does not stem from specific body types and behaviors like type 2 diabetes does. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. When those cells die, the body cannot make insulin as well, and sugar builds up in the blood, causing organ and nerve damage if left untreated.

The next logical question becomes, then, “Why are more children’s immune cells attacking their pancreatic tissue?” The risk factors for type 1 diabetes include genetics, geography, lack of certain nutrients and exposure to some viruses, but more research will be needed to determine whether one of these factors is contributing to the rise in type 1 diabetes cases, or if something else is responsible.

Further, although the authors recognize that some of the disease trends by ethnicity or gender are not as statistically powerful as the trend for the whole population, the steep increase in type 1 diabetes cases among Hispanic youths raises the question of why this population specifically is more susceptible to type 1 diabetes.

The incidences of type 2 diabetes increased for children of all races, on the other hand. Obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise are all risk factors for type 2 diabetes, in which fatty tissue makes the body less sensitive to insulin. Type 2 diabetes is much more common in adults than it is in children, but this study shows that poor health in children is leading to more chronic disease.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, highlights the need for more research into preventing diabetes, which could save patients discomfort, pain and millions of dollars over a lifetime, especially when the disease starts in childhood.

—Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.

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