The Youngest Case Of Type 2 Diabetes Ever Recorded Highlights An ‘Emerging Epidemic’

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Doctors in Texas say that a three-year-old girl is possibly the youngest person to ever be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. She has since been able to overcome the ailment thanks to significant dietary changes, physical activity, and medication.

The youngster, an overweight Hispanic girl, tested positive during a doctor’s visit related to her significant weight gain, excessive thirst, and frequent urination — all symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Before her treatment, she counted among the heaviest 5 percent of children in her age group. A review of her family’s diet also found that she consumed foods high in calories and fat.

“The incidence of type 2 diabetes has increased dramatically worldwide in children due to the epidemic of child obesity. Clinicians should be aware of the possibility of type 2 diabetes even in very young obese children, although, of course, type 1 diabetes can also still occur in obese children and is in fact much more common in young children than type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Michael Yafi, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Texas, told the Guardian.

The child’s treatment regimen included metformin, an oral medication for type 2 diabetes. Her family also changed the types of food she ate and reduced portion size while engaging her in more physical activity. Within six months, she lost 75 percent of her weight and her glucose levels normalized.

“Reversal of type 2 diabetes in children is possible by early screening of obese children, early diagnosis, appropriate therapy and lifestyle modification,” Yafi explained.

Diabetes, characterized by high blood glucose levels, often occurs because the body cannot produce enough insulin or cells in the body aren’t responding to the creation of the hormone.

While type 1 relates more to one’s genetics and family history, type 2 often stems from an unbalanced diet and lack of exercise. Those afflicted by type 2 diabetes often have body fat often exerts pressure on the pancreas to secrete more insulin to properly control blood glucose levels. Left untreated, diabetes causes blindness, kidney diseases, and amputations.

The number of children diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in the United States has skyrocketed in the last 20 years, creating what has been dubbed an “emerging epidemic.”

The rise in cases occurred simultaneously an explosion in obesity nationwide, the rate of which has more than doubled since the 1970s. Today, children under the age of 20 account for nearly one-fifth of new cases — an increase of 15 percentage points from two decades prior. In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted one in three newborns born at the turn of the century would develop type 2 diabetes before reaching adolescence unless they maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity for children older than the age of 6, as well as a balanced diet that includes bread, fruits, vegetables, fish, and dairy. However, not many young people are heeding those recommendations.

Not even half of young people between ages of 12 and 21 years say they exercise regularly, and they have little impetus to do so. Only six states — including Illinois, Mississippi, Massachusetts, and New York — require physical education for children in every grade. In some parts of the country, unsafe neighborhood conditions, inadequate access to parks, and long distances to important locations discourage consistent physical activity.

When it comes to healthy food, the choices available — or the lack of choices — contribute to what a child decides to eat. For more than 49 million Americans living in areas with high food insecurity, full-service grocery stores, farmers markets, and other healthy food sources remain out of reach. In cases where these sources are within walking distance, government assistance may not suffice in getting people proper food, especially with cuts to food stamps. That’s part of the reason why cheap high-sodium, high-sugar foods remain commonplace in some low-income homes.

“No matter which way you look at it, [the American diet] is so not healthy and really just unsustainable,” Miriam Nelson, a professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, said at a July meeting of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the group of health and nutrition experts that’s compiling the new dietary recommendations.

But preventing chronic illness and encouraging a healthy lifestyle would require some input from actors in the public and private sphere. In recent years, conversations about obesity and diet have shifted focus to the issue of food insecurity and other external factors that determine eating and exercise habits. Lawmakers passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which authorized funding and set policy for the United States Department of Agriculture’s food programs. The federal government later followed up with its Healthy Food Financing Initiative — $500 million in grants that encourage local businesses to set up shop in food deserts.

Groups across the country have also taken steps to ensure people of all ages can thrive in environments that allow them live healthily. Earlier this year, developers in the South Bronx announced the addition of bike and pedestrian routes, access to a waterfront, and 800 trees to a low-income neighborhood. In New Haven, Connecticut, a $120,000 grant will fund the city’s Health in Your Hand program, which includes a physical activity component for children and their families.