Diabetes in kids and young people is projected to dramatically surge. Can it be prevented?

Diabetes is expected to surge dramatically in young people over the next several decades in what experts say should be a wake-up call to prioritize health in America.

Researchers estimate that in 2060, there could be as many as 220,000 people under age 20 with Type 2 diabetes, an increase of nearly 700%, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released Thursday. Those with Type 1, the most common type in young people, could see a 65% increase.

Overall, the findings estimate that more than half a million young people could have diabetes in 2060, if current rates continue and with population increase. In 2017, that number was 213,000, according to the study published in American Diabetes Association's Diabetes Care.

The statistics are concerning and should stir urgency in addressing the health of American young people, such as prioritizing efforts to bring down rates of obesity, a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, experts say.

Despite a known link between obesity and Type 2 diabetes, "it’s very unsettling that we have not made any progress to really decrease this risk of Type 2 diabetes in children," said Dr. Colleen Buggs-Saxton, a pediatric endocrinologist at Wayne State University.

Youth diabetes: Explaining the surge and other key findings

  • Estimated increases over the next four decades are derived from projected increases in population, leading to “substantial widening of disparities among race and ethnicity groups” in Type 2 prevalence, the authors wrote.

  • There could be several explanations, including high rates of childhood obesity, the authors note. Maternal diabetes also increases risk of diabetes in children.

  • Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaska Native young people had higher rates of Type 2.

The projected disparities are "very alarming," said Dr. Luohua Jiang, a diabetes researcher at the University of California, Irvine.

"It’ll be very critical to educate American youth regarding healthy lifestyles and potential ways to prevent diabetes in their early lives in order to 'flatten the curve' for the quickly rising number of youth with diabetes among the underserved/minority populations," Jiang said.

What is the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition that often shows up earlier in life and occurs when the pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin. In patients with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition, the body mistakenly attacks insulin-producing cells.

Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, is typically lifestyle-related and develops over time.

How many children have obesity and diabetes now?

An estimated 283,000 children and teens under age 20 have diagnosed diabetes. The majority – or 244,000 – are Type 1 diabetes, according to the latest figures from the CDC. moved down

Studies also have shown recent increases in Type 2 among children and teens.

Between 2017 and 2020, roughly 14.7 million children and teens – or close to 20% –suffered obesity, a risk factor for Type 2, and Hispanic and Black children endured the most disproportionate rates.

'Wake-up call': What can be done?

“This new research should serve as a wake-up call for all of us. It’s vital that we focus our efforts to ensure all Americans, especially our young people, are the healthiest they can be,” said Dr. Debra Houry, acting principal deputy director at the CDC, in a news release.

Experts say treating obesity as a chronic disease with personalized treatment plans can help. Changing a child’s diet should include the family household, and tools like wearing continuous glucose monitors can also motivate patients to make changes.

But some children may need more than diet and exercise changes, Buggs-Saxton explained. They may need medication management but could face systematic challenges to getting drugs that could otherwise help. Bridging that gap between research and practical implementation is necessary.

“It’s very unsettling that our health care system makes it very difficult to prescribe medical treatment that has been approved to help children who are obese, especially those who are most vulnerable,” she said, referring to certain weight loss medications.

Patients who don’t have commercial insurance are disproportionately people of color and often are the most at risk but have the most trouble getting approval from public insurance coverage plans, she said.

“We need to embrace obesity as a chronic disease and customize treatment plans for these children to help prevent long-term complications,” Buggs-Saxton said. “Type 2 diabetes and heart disease (are) going to be knocking on their door in their early adulthood.”

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Reach Nada Hassanein at nhassanein@usatoday.com or on Twitter @nhassanein_.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Diabetes in American children, teens to surge by 2060: CDC study