Diabetes is a condition in which the body is unable to regulate blood sugar levels due to a problem with the hormone, insulin. Insulin is needed for the cells of the body to take in glucose (sugar) for energy. Without glucose, the body's cells are starved for fuel.
The American Diabetes Association estimates 17 million people have the condition. There are two types. Type 1 diabetes typically is diagnosed during childhood, with peak incidence occurring around puberty (10 to 12 for boys and 12 to 14 for girls). It's caused when the insulin producing cells of the body are destroyed and the body can no longer produce the hormone. Up to 1.1 million Americans have type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body either doesn't produce enough insulin or is unable to effectively use the hormone. This type is most commonly seen in older, overweight, sedentary adults.
Without enough insulin for cells to absorb fuel, high levels of glucose circulate in the blood. Over time, that can injure the walls of the blood vessels and lead to organ damage. Patients with diabetes are at increased risk for several long-term complications, such as heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney disease, nerve disease, poor wound healing and amputation.
Girls and Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is traditionally a disease of adults. However, over the past several years, doctors have been diagnosing an increasing number of cases in children. Researchers report up to 45 percent of children who are newly diagnosed diabetics have type 2 rather than type 1. Last year, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported 25 percent of children (aged 4 to 10) and 21 percent of adolescents (11 to 18) had a condition called impaired glucose tolerance (IGT), in which the body shows some inability to use glucose. IGT is believed to be an important precursor to the development of type 2 diabetes.
Rates of type 2 diabetes are higher among females. In a study of children from Florida, nearly 63 percent of the those with type 2 diabetes were girls. Increased rates of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle contribute to a risk for type 2 diabetes. Researchers say overweight girls tend to be less physically active than overweight boys – which may predispose females to diabetes. Hormones may also play a role since many cases appear to develop during puberty.
Doctors are concerned that children with type 2 diabetes will develop complications at a much earlier age than older adults with the condition. But there may be hope. Research suggests increasing physical activity and eating a healthy diet decreases body fat. Reducing body fat levels may improve the ability to use insulin and decrease the risk of developing diabetes. Investigators are testing an intervention program, called "Fit Kids," for children who are believed to be at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Children are taught lifestyle changes, such as exercise and healthy eating habits, which may help them avoid or delay the onset of diabetes.