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Warning: The Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in Teens Is On the Rise

Nearly one in five U.S. teenagers is now living with prediabetes. According to a new study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, a fifth of adolescents and nearly a quarter of young adults in the United States are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and other serious health conditions. The prevalence of prediabetes in teenagers was significantly higher in male adolescents and in people with obesity.

The study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) followed 5,786 individuals included in a national health survey from 2005 to 2016. Researchers estimated that 18 percent of American adolescents ages 12 to 18 have prediabetes, and 24 percent of young adults ages 19 to 24.


Prediabetes is a condition in which patients exhibit elevated blood sugar levels that put them at risk later in life of developing type 2 diabetes. Formerly known as “adult onset diabetes,” type 2 diabetes used to be uncommon in teens and young adults. But now, according to the American Obesity Association, about 30.4 percent of U.S. teenagers are currently overweight, and 15.5 percent of them are obese. “Obesity is a major risk factor in developing type 2 diabetes. That is one of the reasons why we are now seeing the occurrence of prediabetes in adolescents,” says study co-author Giuseppina Imperatore, MD, Ph.D.

Type 1 Diabetes

Previously, diabetic children were much more commonly associated with type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 is an autoimmune condition resulting from an attack on the beta cells of the pancreas which produce insulin. Without the ability to produce their own insulin, patients with type 1 diabetes are dependent on either shots or a pump to regulate their blood sugar levels.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes, in contrast, develops over years. The body becomes less responsive to insulin needed to control glucose in the bloodstream. “We didn’t really see type 2 diabetes in the 0-19 age group until the 1990s,” says Imperatore. Obesity is also closely linked to type 2 diabetes in adults.

Researchers determined that 25.7 percent of obese adolescents found to have prediabetes, versus 16.4 percent of individuals in the same age group with normal weight.

Obesity is defined as being in the top 95 percentile and above based upon age, height, and weight.

The study further found that “the prevalence of prediabetes in male individuals was almost twice that in female individuals”—22.5 percent vs. 13.4 percent.

What explains the gender differentiation? “We don’t know why more males than females have prediabetes. It could be due to the way in which sex hormones affect sugar metabolism,” says Imperatore.

Prediabetes is determined by one of three tests:  fasting glucose, 2 hours after a glucose tolerance, or hemoglobin A1c. The study found that those individuals with prediabetes had higher systolic blood pressure, more fat tissue around the abdomen, higher non-HDL cholesterol, and lower insulin sensitivity than their peers with normal glucose tolerance.

Prediabetes can lead to type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is associated with the development of serious health complications.

If glucose levels are not well-controlled, patients can develop kidney damage, blindness, circulation problems in the legs that can lead to amputation, and a high risk of cardiovascular disease.

Diabetes Prevention

What can you do to lower your teenager’s risk of developing diabetes? Parents can help their children achieve a healthy weight and help with prevention by: (1) encouraging kids to get 60 minutes of daily physical activity; (2) providing nutritious, lower-calorie foods such as fruits and vegetables in place of foods high in added sugars and solid fats at meals and as snacks; and (3) making sure that your child sleeps for at least 8 hours per night, maybe more depending on age.

Finally, be a role model! “Eat healthy meals and snacks and get the right amount of physical activity every day yourself,” says Imperatore.

Jane Parent, former editor at Your Teen, is the parent of three.

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