The rise in children and teens diagnosed with type 2 diabetes – once generally developed by older adults — is significant, so what can be done to help these children and prevent the disease in the first place?
When kids are diagnosed with diabetes, either type 1 or type 2, “it really becomes a family affair out of necessity,” Robert Gabbay, MD, PhD, chief scientific and medical officer for the American Diabetes Association (ADA), told Medical Daily .
While a diabetes diagnosis is life-changing, “one of the major determinants is mindset,” he said. “Type 2 diabetes can be reversed through proper nutrition and exercise. When you make it a family goal to improve on these aspects, when you find a good supportive community, it can make a world of difference.”
Without such changes, diabetes complications can occur much earlier in a young person than they would in someone diagnosed as an adult.
Rachel Wolman, 30, of Richmond, Va., has experienced this. Growing up overweight and a lifelong eating disorder, by the age of 18, Ms. Wolman would eat fast food—chicken nuggets and white bread—twice a day. At 19, her pediatrician told her she had prediabetes and urged her to see a nutritionist.
“But I ignored it,” she said in an interview. “Nothing was super-explained to me in a way that I could understand.”
Ms. Wolman began experiencing yeast infections every two weeks, dizziness, and extreme hunger and thirst — all linked to high blood glucose levels. But she “didn’t want to deal with it.” By 21, she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
During her 20s, Ms. Wolman took a variety of oral diabetes drugs but avoided insulin due to her needle phobia. Despite the meds, her weight and blood glucose readings soared. By 29, she experienced what she called a deep depression and agreed to take Ozempic, an injected diabetes drug, which helps control her appetite. She also started seeing a therapist. In turn, she ate less, and her weight and blood glucose levels went down.
“What I didn’t realize is that my [uncontrolled] diabetes was related to sleep and the neuropathy [nerve pain] in my feet and toes,” she said. “I shifted my eating, so now I try to eat more vegetables and I’m very careful about what I eat. Before, I would eat six bagels in a sitting, and now I eat one. That’s a big change for me.”
Better understanding—about what type 2 diabetes is, how it’s related to food and weight, and how to eat to help treat it—would go a long way to help prevent and manage the diagnosis, Ms. Wolman and medical experts agree.
“We live in an intense world of fat phobia, that being fat is wrong and bad,” said Ms. Wolman. “I believed for 10 years that I gave myself diabetes. I don’t think the education is there, because the stigma around it is so intense. You don’t see role models of people with diabetes who are okay; you only see people losing their feet, or memes making fun of it. But I have it, and even though I’ve lost weight, I’m still fat—but I have learned how to control it.”
Finding other young people who are dealing with diabetes can help, said Dr. Gabbay. “For many children living with diabetes, they might be the only person in their school or community dealing with the everyday realities that come with diabetes.”
The ADA offers camps and other programs that help bring people together to learn about exercise, eating habits and other practices that improve diabetes management. “The goal is really to connect and empower youth to make healthy choices to develop lifelong habits and encourage youth to develop sustainable healthy household habits,” said Dr. Gabbay.
Finally, improved access to healthier foods, regular and sustained exercise, and addressing rather than ignoring one’s diabetes, will all help prevent or push off damaging diabetes complications, Karl Nadolsky, DO, told Medical Daily. Dr. Nadolsky is a spokesperson for the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) and a clinical endocrinologist at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“We need our health care system to embrace the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemic in a comprehensive and holistic manner, helping at the earliest stages of risk to improve lifestyle habits of families in addition to intensive individual therapy,” said Dr. Nadolsky. “Earlier diagnosis puts significant stress on young adults and their families. They must deal with the complications, but to prevent the complications, it takes hard and meticulous work.”
Cheryl Alkon is a seasoned health and medical writer based in Massachusetts. She is the author of Balancing Pregnancy With Pre-Existing Diabetes: Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby.