Type 2 diabetes in children is a chronic disease that affects the way your child's body processes sugar (glucose). Without treatment, the disorder causes sugar to build up in the blood, which can lead to serious long-term consequences.
Type 2 diabetes occurs more commonly in adults. In fact, it used to be called adult-onset diabetes. But type 2 diabetes in children is on the rise, fueled by the obesity epidemic.
There's plenty you can do to help manage or prevent type 2 diabetes in children. Encourage your child to eat healthy foods, get plenty of physical activity and maintain a healthy weight. If diet and exercise aren't enough to control type 2 diabetes in children, oral medication or insulin treatment may be needed.
Type 2 diabetes in children may develop so gradually that there are no noticeable symptoms. Sometimes, the disorder is diagnosed during a routine check-up.
Other children might experience:
- Increased thirst and frequent urination. Excess sugar building up in your child's bloodstream pulls fluid from tissues. As a result your child might be thirsty — and drink and urinate more than usual.
- Fatigue. Lack of sugar in your child's cells might make him or her exhausted.
- Blurry vision. If your child's blood sugar is too high, fluid may be pulled from the lenses of your child's eyes. Your child might be unable to focus clearly.
- Darkened areas of skin. Before type 2 diabetes develops, certain areas of the skin begin to darken. These areas are often found around the neck or in the armpits.
- Weight loss. Without the energy that sugar supplies, muscle tissues and fat stores simply shrink. However, weight loss is less common in children with type 2 diabetes than in children with type 1 diabetes.
When to see a doctor
See your child's doctor if you notice any of the signs or symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Undiagnosed, the disease can cause serious damage.
Diabetes screening is recommended for children who are overweight or obese who have started puberty or are at least 10 years old and have at least one other risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Other risk factors include having a family history of diabetes, being a nonwhite race or having signs of insulin resistance, such as darkened skin patches on the neck or armpits.
The exact cause of type 2 diabetes is unknown. But family history and genetics appear to play an important role. Inactivity and excess fat — especially fat around the belly — also seem to be important factors.
What is clear is that people with type 2 diabetes can't process glucose properly. As a result, sugar builds up in the bloodstream instead of doing its normal job of fueling the cells that make up muscles and other tissues.
Most of the sugar in people's bodies comes from the food they eat. When food is digested, sugar enters the bloodstream. Moving sugar from the bloodstream to the body's cells requires the hormone insulin.
Insulin comes from a gland located behind the stomach called the pancreas. The pancreas releases insulin into the blood after a person eats.
As insulin circulates, it allows sugar to enter the cells — lowering the amount of sugar in the bloodstream. As the blood sugar level drops, so does the secretion of insulin from the pancreas.
Type 2 diabetes develops when the body becomes resistant to insulin or when the pancreas stops making enough insulin. The resulting buildup of sugar in the bloodstream can cause symptoms of high blood sugar.
Researchers don't fully understand why some children develop type 2 diabetes and others don't, even if they have similar risk factors. However, it's clear that certain factors increase the risk, including:
- Weight. Being overweight is a strong risk factor for type 2 diabetes in children. The more fatty tissue children have — especially around the abdomen — the more resistant their bodies' cells become to insulin.
- Inactivity. The less active your child is, the greater his or her risk of type 2 diabetes. Physical activity helps your child control his or her weight, uses glucose as energy, and makes your child's cells more responsive to insulin.
- Family history. Children's risk of type 2 diabetes increases if they have a parent or sibling with the disease.
- Race. Although it's unclear why, people of certain races — including African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
- Age and sex. Many children develop type 2 diabetes in their early teens. Adolescent girls are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than are adolescent boys.
- Birth weight and gestational diabetes. Low birth weight and being born to a mother who had gestational diabetes during the pregnancy are both associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Pre-term birth. Babies born prematurely — before 39 to 42 weeks' gestation —have a greater risk of type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes can affect nearly every major organ in your child's body, including the blood vessels, nerves, eyes and kidneys. The long-term complications of type 2 diabetes develop gradually over many years. Eventually, diabetes complications may be disabling or even life-threatening.
Complications of type 2 diabetes include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart and blood vessel disease
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
- Kidney disease
Keeping your child's blood sugar level close to normal most of the time can dramatically reduce the risk of these complications.
Healthy lifestyle choices can help prevent type 2 diabetes in children. If your child already has type 2 diabetes, lifestyle changes can reduce the need for medications and the risk of complications. Encourage your child to:
- Eat healthy foods. Offer your child foods low in fat and calories. Focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Strive for variety to prevent boredom.
- Get more physical activity. Encourage your child to become active. Sign your child up for a sports team or dance lessons, or look for active things to do together.
Better yet, make it a family affair. The same lifestyle choices that can help prevent type 2 diabetes in children can do the same for adults. The best diet for a child with diabetes is also the best diet for the whole family.