Once referred to as maturity-onset diabetes, type 2 diabetes is no longer seen only in older adults. Unfortunately, it is now being detected at younger ages, including in children. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), around 400 cases of type 2 diabetes are diagnosed each year in those aged 10 to 24 years.
Type 2 diabetes occurs as a result of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a problem where the body’s insulin, the hormone needed to control blood glucose levels, is unable to work properly to get glucose from the bloodstream into muscles and cells. Carrying extra weight worsens insulin resistance and this is why children who are overweight are at higher risk. As a result the body has to produce more insulin to try to overcome the resistance and keep blood glucose levels normal. Over time, however, the body may no longer be able to continue to make enough insulin to overcome the insulin resistance, so blood glucose levels rise and diabetes develops.
Both lifestyle factors and genetics can contribute to a child’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Children most at risk are those who:
- Have a family history of type 2 diabetes
- Are overweight or obese
- Are physically inactive
- Have poor eating habits
- Are of Aboriginal or Pacific Islander background or from other high risk ethnic groups such as Indian or Chinese backgrounds
Type 2 diabetes is often thought to be less serious than type 1 (the more common type of diabetes in children which requires insulin injections) but this isn’t the case. Regardless of the type of diabetes or the treatment, diabetes is a serious health condition. Over time, high blood glucose levels can lead to other health problems including heart, kidney, eye and nerve problems, with the risk of these increasing the longer someone has diabetes. This means that being diagnosed young is a real concern, as the chance of developing complications is higher and they are more likely to develop earlier in life.
The good news is that with lifestyle factors playing a big part in the development of type 2 diabetes, there’s a lot that you can do to reduce your child’s risk. This is important for all children, but particularly those who are at increased risk due to a family history or ethnic background. As a parent you can help to reduce your child’s chances of type 2 diabetes by developing healthy lifestyle habits as a family. This includes:
- Providing and encouraging healthy food choices. In the latest Australian National Health Survey only 68% of children aged 2–18 years met the guidelines for recommended daily serves of fruit and 5% met the guidelines for serves of vegetables. Similarly, only 5% met both guidelines.
- Encouraging physical activity and reducing sedentary time – this could include encouraging your child to become involved in sports and activities they enjoy and being active as a family on weekends and holidays
- Limiting screen time – a number of studies have shown a link between screen time, particularly television watching, and diabetes risk. In the latest National Health Survey, children and adolescents aged 5–17 years spent, on average, over two hours a day (136 minutes) in sedentary screen-based activity and less than one-third (29%) met the recommendations for screen time in the National Physical Activity Guidelines (no more than two hours of non-educational screen time each day).
- Addressing weight issues through healthy lifestyle choices and seeking professional help where needed. Australia’s 2014–15 National Health Survey found that 27% of children aged 5–17 years were overweight or obese, putting them at risk of type 2 diabetes and other health problems.
Making these changes will not only reduce diabetes risk but also help to manage it in those who are affected.
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