Blaming the Victim? What’s behind the “epidemic” of teenage type-2 diabetes?

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It may be easier to blame smartphones and snacks than to deal with the more basic impediments to proper nutrition and exercise among teenagers.

Blaming the Victim? What’s behind the “epidemic” of teenage type-2 diabetes?

When it comes to considering matters of health, boundaries often get blurred. Maladies don’t always respect our markers, and one thing can look like, or lead to, another. Diabetes can bring depression. Depression can cause cardiovascular problems. Cardiovascular problems can lead to just about anything.

Sometimes when we report about new studies, new outbreaks of this or that, we can actually lose track of what it was we sat down to investigate. Diabetes? Depression? Disease?

So we weren’t particularly surprised to read that endocrinologist Robert Rizza, of the fabled Mayo Clinic in the U.S., opined that it was time to call the surge of cases of type-2 diabetes among teenagers an “epidemic.”

There are, the clinic’s newsletter pointed out, 30 million Americans and 500 million people worldwide now living with type-2 diabetes. Dr. Rizza’s view is that, since many are being diagnosed at increasingly earlier ages, it’s time to bring out the e-word.  

But his more specific point has to do with “teenage” diabetes. “If you get this disease when you're 15, … then you talk about the risk of heart attacks and eye problems is very high – sometimes for the rest of your life."

“Let’s talk about it,” Dr. Rizza says. But anyone even peripherally involved in health-care matters already knows what he’s talking about. The temptation is to ask, cynically, “They pay people to ay this stuff?”

But since a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist is suggesting it, maybe it’s time to ask better questions. How bad is it? What can be done?

Scott Berry | Certified MBTI Practitioner

Why is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator so favoured by Fortune 100 companies and leaders? It's because they know that organizational "culture" is everything: but to change culture you have to change yourself, from the inside, out. And in the right hands, MBTI is the most powerful tools for personal and professional growth and transformation.

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How bad is it?

If you check the stats and the reports on the stats, you’re unlikely to find a word milder than “troubling.” In raw numbers, in a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the U.S. National Institutes of Health say that in the U.S. alone 208,000 people under the age of 20 are living with diagnosed diabetes (including all types, though the preponderance of type 1 is lower).

The SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth Study, a co-project of the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is the first (and only ongoing) research project to assess trends in diabetes (all types) among Americans under 20. Here is a summary of its statistical findings, verbatim:

“From 2002 to 2012, incidence, or the rate of new diagnosed cases of type 1 diabetes in youth increased by about 1.8 percent each year. During the same period, the rate of new diagnosed cases of type 2 diabetes increased even more quickly, at 4.8 percent. The study included 11,244 youth ages 0-19 with type 1 diabetes and 2,846 youth ages 10-19 with type 2.”

Other key findings from the study were that among youth 0-19 years of age

  • Newly diagnosed cases of type-2 diabetes in Native Americans (8.9%), Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders (8.5%) and non-Hispanic blacks (6.3%), and Hispanics (3.1%).
  • The smallest increase was in whites (0.6%).
  • Rate of newly diagnosed cases rose more sharply in females (6.2%) than in males (3.7%).

Giuseppina Imperatore, M.D., Ph.D., epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, added an observation that echoes Dr. Rizza’s (above). “Because of the early age of onset and longer diabetes duration, youth are at risk for developing diabetes related complications at a younger age. This profoundly lessens their quality of life, shortens their life expectancy, and increases health care costs.”

“These findings lead to many more questions,” Barbara Lindner, M.D., ph. D., NIH senior advisor for childhood diabetes research, added. “The differences among racial and ethnic groups and between genders raise many questions. We need to understand why the increase in rates of diabetes development varies so greatly and is so concentrated in specific racial and ethnic groups.”

Scott Berry | Certified 360degree Practitioner

Leadership is a moving target. It requires us to get comfortable with almost continuous change and challenge. 360-degree feedback, in the right hands, can motivate and help you! It evaluates the impact you and your team have on the relationships around you, so helps you get the job done

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What can be done?

To return to our earlier observation, the “obvious solution” is the familiar one from many other spheres of health: 1) Eat better; 2) Exercise more.

As this applies to teenagers, it’s most commonly expressed now as “Get them off their phone and off their a***s.” There’s usually something in knee-jerk reactions like that. But to what extent is it blaming the victim(s)?

Parents and other adults might begin by asking themselves the degree to which they conform to things recommended and discouraged. And what that means in terms of the examples they set, a matter often overlooked in the railing at the “bad models” in entertainment, advertising, and the like.

Not that those bad models are not all too real. But rail about smartphones all you like, that horse has long left the barn. “Kids” may be better at the “gadgets” than most adults, but it was adults who put them in their hands and who have the greatest influence on the content that goes out on them.

Although nothing may be more private than the content on a teenager’s phone, parents and other adults have ways of discovering—and influencing—the kinds of advertisements, promotions, trends, and “temptations” that make it onto the lines.

Surely the differences of increased rates of new type-2 diabetes diagnoses among youth of different ethnicities warrants much further investigation. But would it be impertinent to suggest that those matters be explored in terms of the kinds of foods and arenas of exercise available to them?

And might adolescents be amenable to being taught ways to monitor their own health with smartphone apps? The only other way they’re likely to learn those apps is with the input of age-specific peer-support groups. So what about helping them find age-appropriate support groups?

Some things seem as obvious as the anecdotal observations that little kids are becoming “big kids” earlier than usual, and less often to their benefit.



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