Doctors had discovered that Annie had Type 2 diabetes, a disease that is often linked to being overweight. She never made it to summer camp. By the time she came home from the hospital a week later, she knew how to inject herself with insulin and she knew that she’d have diabetes for the rest of her life.
As recently as the mid-1990s, Type 2 diabetes was almost exclusively a disease of adults. But apparently fueled by the childhood obesity epidemic, cases in people younger than 20 have ramped up from virtually zero to tens of thousands in the United States in little more than a decade. The children who have it are breaking new scientific ground: No one has any idea how they will fare over the course of a lifetime.
Annie says she was “most definitely overweight” at the time of her diagnosis, and she has already made major lifestyle changes to control the disease. By exercising and cutting back on carbohydrates, she has lost 12 pounds so far. She has reduced her need for insulin from several injections a day to just one each night, and she’s hoping that soon she’ll be able to put the needle aside and just use an oral drug, metformin.
Although she is the only person in her household with diabetes, Annie’s diagnosis triggered a family response. Her parents got rid of the dining room table and turned that space into an exercise room, complete with a bowl of apples and artfully arranged bottles of water at the door. Everyone exercises, including her 15-year-old brother, Stephen; everyone has given up sodas and snacks, everyone eats smaller portions.
“When I see my dad exercise, I know that I’ve helped get him motivated,” Annie says. “Before, exercise was a chore. I would sit and watch TV and eat snacks. Now, as soon as I come home, I put on my workout clothes.”
A disturbing trend
Today, about 3,700 Americans under the age of 20 receive a diagnosis annually of what used to be called “adult-onset” diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That relatively small number makes it a rare disease in children, but it represents a trend with larger ramifications.
“In a little more than 10 years, the numbers went from nothing to something,” says Larry Deeb, a pediatric endocrinologist and past president of the medicine and science division of the American Diabetes Association. “And that’s something to worry about.”
Diabetes can cause a litany of medical woes, including heart disease, kidney failure, limb amputations and blindness. It costs the U.S. health-care system $174 billion a year, according to the National Institutes of Health.