Even in children, he says, “the disease is potentially very aggressive. It needs to be taken seriously.”
There is no simple solution, however. Oral medication, like metformin, as well as insulin can be used to control elevated blood sugar.
But even in young people, diabetes commonly goes hand-in-hand with elevated blood pressure and unhealthy levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which are themselves risk factors for the complications seen in this study.
At the outset, when study participants were 14 years old, on average, about 20 percent had unhealthy blood pressure or cholesterol levels. By their late 20s, 67 percent had high blood pressure and just over half had high cholesterol.
A healthy diet, regular exercise and weight loss, if needed, are central to managing all those problems. But, Zeitler says, that’s easier said than done for families who can’t afford healthy foods or have no safe place for their kids to exercise.
“This is really a social problem,” he adds. “It’s a reflection of the breakdown in our social safety net.”
Dr. Molly Regelmann, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City, says that kids with type 2 diabetes fare best when families are able to make changes to the whole household’s diet and exercise habits. And that can be a challenge.
“Rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes tend to be higher in ‘food deserts’ — areas with limited access to fresh and healthful foods in grocery stores and farm stands,” according to Regelmann.
Those same areas may lack safe places for exercise, too. And the pandemic likely compounded that problem, Regelmann adds.
“School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have led to fewer opportunities for organized sports and physical education classes,” Regelmann says. “The pandemic has also caused gym closures, and in areas where public transportation is necessary to reach open spaces, families have had to weigh risks and benefits of exercise with potential exposures to infection.”
As for medication, there is often hesitancy to use it to manage kids’ blood pressure and cholesterol, according to Zeitler.
But Zeitler’s center they are “more aggressive” in prescribing those medications to kids with type 2 diabetes.
Regelmann agrees that the “threshold” for starting medication is lower for kids who have diabetes than for those without.
There also are fewer options for controlling kids’ blood sugar, compared with adults. At the time of the study, the only approved treatments for patients under 18 were metformin and insulin Zeitler notes.
Some newer medications approved for adults have been shown to not only lower blood sugar, but also curb the risk of complications, according to Regelmann.
“This study highlights the need to test these medications in younger patients,” she concludes.
How do you help your child?
Because obesity is the leading cause of children developing type 2 diabetes, it is important that you make sure your child is eating healthy and staying active. Children and adolescents aged six and older need at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. They also need at least a few days per week of bone- and muscle-strengthening exercises. Children, who are younger than six years old, need three hours of activity every day with one hour or more dedicated to moderate to vigorous physical activity.
Try these tips:
- Talk with your child’s doctor about the sports or activities that may be best for your child. If you know what activities your child likes, find a way to incorporate it into their daily routine and set a time for them to do it daily. It may also help if the whole family joins in. It can be a way for the family to enjoy quality time and get active. Plus children tend to follow their parents. So if they see you engaging in physical activity, they are more likely to try it themselves. It’s also important to pick an activity that is age-appropriate. Soccer, bicycle riding, and swimming are all great activities for young children.
- When your child does play with toys, you can make sure they have toys that are keeping them active (balls, jump ropes, and other active toys).
- Limit screen time, including time spent on TV, videos, computers, and video games each day. The free time can be used for more physical activities.
- Make sure you are not overworking your child. Exercise and physical activity should not hurt. If it becomes painful, your child should slow down or try a less vigorous activity.
- Give your child at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. It may be hard to get younger children to eat their fruits and vegetables so try incorporating them in creative ways like through smoothies or hiding them in their favorite meals.
- Avoid serving your child sugary drinks. Not only do they cause diabetes, they also pack on the pounds. Choose water or milk for healthy hydration.