The greatest health threat to America's youth isn't opioid
addiction or cancer -- it's diabetes. The number of children and teens
diagnosed with type 2, so-called "adult" diabetes increased 5 percent
every year between 2002 and 2012.
The disease dooms millions of Americans to early
deaths. Treating it costs more than $100
billion a year. Consequently, it's the nation's costliest chronic
condition. Perhaps the saddest thing
about these stats is that diabetes is preventable. But efforts to stop young
people from contracting the disease have failed.
A new approach is needed -- one that battles diabetes with
rigorous, individually targeted education programs. Type 2 diabetes generally
results from obesity, which prevents the body from regulating blood sugar
The percentage of children who are obese has tripled over
the past half-century. So the prevalence of diabetes has surged too. The Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention estimates one in three Americans will have diabetes by 2050. The condition can lead to devastating health
conditions. Half of diabetes patients die of heart disease. Diabetes is the primary culprit behind nearly
half of cases of kidney failure. Diabetics are twice as likely to suffer from
depression as nondiabetics.
Diabetic youth are especially at risk. More than 70 percent
of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes as children or teens suffer from at
least one diabetes-related complication.
It's impossible to reverse the disease. And for a variety of
reasons, diabetics have trouble adhering to treatment plans. Just 10 percent of
patients follow their doctor-recommended exercise, diet, and medication
As a result, many diabetics become sicker. Diabetics are
hospitalized for complications related to their inability to adhere to their
treatment regimens more than any patient group except the mentally ill. The
best way to manage the disease is to prevent it in the first place.
Education has proven an effective tool against the
condition. Patients who participated in a program developed by England's
National Health Service that focused on physical activity and healthy lifestyle
choices reduced their risk of developing diabetes by 80 percent. U.S. groups
are ramping up their education campaigns, too.
The American Diabetes Association recently held its first
diabetes prevention camp for youth at risk of developing diabetes in Santa
Clarita, California. Students learned how improved nutrition and increased
physical activity could help them dodge diabetes.
The YMCA of the East Bay and U.C. Berkeley researchers
recently developed a program that teaches overweight kids how to eat
healthier. After a year, participants
were able to reduce their body-mass indexes and regulate their blood sugar
levels more effectively.
Meanwhile, Reach In! Reach Out!, a diabetes prevention
program in Chicago, offers cooking classes to help kids and parents learn how
to prepare healthy meals. St. George's University in Grenada, where I am a
professor, is training students to tackle the diabetes epidemic. We're working
with our government to provide exercise classes to locals and boost physical
activity in schools.
Our students and staff are also training Grenadians to use
the "Touch Toe Test" to screen for diabetes. This procedure involves
applying pressure to toes. Diabetes can sometimes cause peripheral neuropathy,
or nerve damage in hands or feet. That can lead to injuries, infections, and
amputation. Since its implementation,
the test has proven to reduce the number of diabetes-related amputations.
The rising prevalence of diabetes among children is a deadly
trend. Early education and intervention can prevent untold suffering. Satesh
Bidaisee is a professor of public health and preventative medicine and
assistant dean for graduate studies at St. George?s University in Grenada.