Diabetes in Kids on the Rise and Rise

Type two-diabetes used to be a disease suffered by overweight men over the age of 60 years old. In the past ten years, this middle aged disease has begun to affect children as young as ten years old.

Childhood diabetes is set to reach epidemic levels by increasing 20-fold over the next ten years. Professor Martin Silink, head of the Institute of Endocrinology at Sydney’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, says that childhood diabetes was almost unheard of as little as five years ago. “Now it is almost like a new disease,” he says. Professor Paul Zimmet, head of the International Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, believes that soon the number of Type two childhood diabetics will outnumber the Type-one childhood diabetics. He estimates that in Australia 5000 children under the age of 18 have Type-two diabetes.

The childhood diabetes which we are familiar with, is Type-one diabetes, where children’s ability to produce insulin ceases. This means that they are unable to digest simple sugars and require injections of insulin in order to maintain normal blood sugar levels. If they do not receive this treatment, their condition becomes life threatening.

The new childhood diabetes, Type-two, is caused by the blood sugar levels becoming too high, due to a diet high in sugar and fat and a lack of exercise. Since 1985 the number of overweight and obese children in Australia has doubled, which is part of a worldwide trend. One in four Australian children are overweight and one in 20 children are obese. It is these overweight and obese children who are suffering from the new childhood Type-two diabetes. Some ethnic groups are more susceptible to contracting Type-two diabetes, but excess weight and lack of exercise remain the main reasons for this problem.  Some obese girls have an excess of facial hair caused by increased insulin levels. (Eating too many sugary, fatty foods brings about increased insulin levels.)

A huge implication of the dramatic rise of childhood Type-two diabetes, is the health complications these children will suffer, ten or 20 years later. The diabetic child faces a hugely increased risk of heart disease, blindness, kidney disease and poor limb circulation leading to amputations.

The cause of this trend is quite clear to medical personnel – an excess of sugary fatty foods and a lack of exercise. Busy families, fast food, TV and computer games are huge contributing factors. Unless this trend changes, with improved diet and increased physical activity,  the course of Type- two diabetes in children is set.

The treatment is very, very simple. Dietary change and increased exercise. For these changes to take place, parents are going to need to be more insistent about their children’s habits. Given the choice, children almost always choose chocolate, potato chips, ice cream and hamburgers. If we let our children choose, these patterns cannot change.

In an interesting study conducted in a UK school, children were given the choice to either use school computers, or play in the playground during lunchtimes. Given the choice, most children became involved in computer games. However, when they were instructed to play in the playground and questioned afterwards, most said that although they would have chosen to use the computer. They enjoyed playing in the playground much more, and felt better afterwards than if they had stayed using computers.

It may sound old fashioned, but children are not always able to make healthy choices for themselves until they reach their mid-late teens. They need to be taught what is healthy. It is a rare child who refuses to watch television or eat takeaway, given the chance. They will always say they prefer white bread and won’t eat vegetables or fruit. Adults do need to use their influence here, for their children’s sake.

The information is here, the alarm has been sounded. So far, there are no government objectives I am aware to address this problem. Apart from individual efforts on the part of parents, some community efforts can be made, by changing the type of food available in school tuck shops. Let’s hope that there is enough awareness and concern in the community to prevent this problem from growing worse.