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Help Your Child and Teen Lower Their Risk of Prediabetes

November 29, 2018

When we think about diabetes, we often picture it affecting an adult. And if the disease affects a child, we assume it is type 1 diabetes. But that’s changing. More children and teens are developing type 2 diabetes, and its precursor, prediabetes. A study from 2012 found 23 percent of teens had diabetes or prediabetes, which was an increase from 9 percent in just 10 years. Those are concerning statistics, and researchers believe that the increase is due to more children being obese and overweight.

Fortunately, there are steps that minimize the risk of your child or teen developing prediabetes. And by lowering the risk of prediabetes, you also reduce their likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.

Understanding Diabetes and Prediabetes

Diabetes is a disease that occurs when your child’s body can’t properly process food to use as energy. When we digest food, it is broken down into glucose and passes into the bloodstream. As this happens, the glucose level in the blood rises and signals to the pancreas to make insulin, which helps the glucose get into the cells. With diabetes, your child’s body cannot create or use insulin properly, so the glucose stays in the bloodstream. High glucose (or sugar) levels in the blood can cause a variety of health problems.Doctor teaches boy about prediabetes

With type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can’t make insulin because the body’s immune system attacked and destroyed cells that would make it. Exposure to a virus may have compounded the problem. Type 1 diabetes can’t be prevented, and if your child has this form of diabetes, they require insulin for lifelong treatment.

With type 2 diabetes, the pancreas still produces insulin, but the body doesn’t respond to it appropriately, and glucose is still unable to enter the cells as it should. Type 2 diabetes used to primarily affect adults, but more young people, especially those who are overweight, are developing the disease.

Although prediabetes isn’t technically diabetes, it is still a serious health condition that occurs when your child’s blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be classified as diabetes. Having prediabetes still increases your child’s risk of developing type 2 (but not type 1) diabetes, as well as stroke and heart disease. Symptoms of prediabetes can be difficult to detect, unless you have your child’s blood sugar tested by the pediatrician.

If diabetes is untreated or uncontrolled, it can lead to a variety of health problems, including glaucoma, nerve damage, kidney disease, high blood pressure, stroke and gastroparesis. If your child has not developed type 2 diabetes, learning how to avoid it—and prediabetes—is essential.

Risk Factors for Prediabetes

Who is most likely to develop prediabetes? Research indicates that these factors increase your child’s risk:

  • A family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Some ethnic groups have a higher risk (African American, Latino, Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islander)
  • Signs of insulin resistance or conditions associated with insulin resistance such as hypertension, elevated cholesterol, polycystic ovary syndrome, acanthosis nigricans (a skin condition) or low birth weight
  • A maternal history of diabetes or gestational diabetes during the child’s gestation; high or low birth weight
  • Being prescribed antipsychotic medicine

If a child or teen has these factors and also is overweight or obese, they are particularly at risk for developing prediabetes. While symptoms of prediabetes may be difficult to detect, there are some changes to look for that can signal insulin resistance, such as the skin condition acanthosis nigricans, low energy, increased waist size, weight loss, excess urination or excess thirst.

Protecting Your Child from Prediabetes

Lifestyle changes can help many children with prediabetes delay or prevent the condition from becoming diabetes. The National Diabetes Prevention Program outlined three main lifestyle changes that are effective at reducing the risk of developing diabetes. These same strategies are effective in helping your child reduce their likelihood of getting prediabetes.

  • Weight control: If your child is overweight, prediabetes is more likely to turn into diabetes. But keep in mind that children and teens still need calories to continue growing. Talk with your child’s pediatrician to get a good understanding of a healthy weight range for your child’s height, health and activity level.
  • Exercise: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children and teens exercise 60 minutes per day, five times a week. However, if your child isn’t up to that level of activity, start with moderate exercise at 30 minutes a day, such as cycling, swimming or brisk walking. Ideally the exercise should be aerobic and increase the heart rate. For anyone, but particularly for kids, exercise should be fun so it helps build a habit that lasts a lifetime. Consider signing up your child for team or individual sports. Give them responsibility for taking the dog out for walks twice a day. Sign up for a class or activity to do together or as a family.
  • Nutrition: Particularly for growing children and teens, it’s more about eating the right foods than about dieting. Plan meals that mix low-fat protein, vegetables and whole grains. Look for lower-fat foods and pay attention to serving sizes, sugar and starchy carbohydrates. Favor fiber-rich foods, which leave your child feeling full, but not stuffed. Make it a family endeavor, so your child doesn’t feel “punished” by eating healthy foods. Talk with a nutritionist if you would like more ideas on how to prepare healthier meals for your family.

Making positive lifestyle changes for you and your family takes planning and commitment, but the benefits of decreasing the risk of prediabetes definitely outweigh any inconvenience.

Learn More About Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children

If your child is facing pediatric diabetes, you can count on the experts at Arnold Palmer Hospital to help. Whether your child needs diagnosis, treatment or management support, our pediatric endocrinologists can provide your family with the services you need. 

Learn More

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