Diabetes is all about insulin, a hormone that is essential to escort glucose (a form of sugar) from the foods we eat into cells of the body where it is critically needed to function properly. Without insulin, high levels of fat and glucose remain in the bloodstream, which can damage blood vessels and vital organs over time.
Unfortunately, diabetes is increasingly common in children and adolescents, who can develop either type 1 diabetes (once called “juvenile diabetes” or “insulin-dependent diabetes”) or type 2 diabetes (once called “adult-onset diabetes”). That’s what we’re seeing here at Joslin Diabetes Center in our Programs for Children and Young Adults; and it’s happening everywhere.
Type 1 diabetes, in which the body stops generating insulin, affects about 1 in 500 children in the United States, and that rate is on the rise. Far fewer children get type 2 diabetes, in which the body doesn’t produce enough insulin and/or can’t use insulin properly. Type 2 cases also are climbing, as the disease is closely associated with obesity, which is soaring among children in this country.
In fact, the total cases of childhood diabetes are expected to double by 2020.
A child diagnosed with type 1 diabetes typically is still churning out some insulin, but over time the cells in the pancreas that produce the hormone are gradually destroyed by the body’s own immune system. The child then needs insulin, either injected or received via an insulin pump, around the clock to survive.
Having a child diagnosed with type 1 can be real shock. According to Dr. Lori Laffel, the head of Joslin’s Pediatric Diabetes Programs, a diagnosis of diabetes affects the whole family. And families of young patients who receive this diagnosis generally are caught off guard, as only about 10% have a family history of type 1 diabetes. We encourage all parents and anyone who cares for young children to be aware of the warning signs for the disease. which include extreme thirst, frequent urination, lethargy, flu-like symptoms and dehydration.
Type 2 diabetes can develop silently in children and adolescents, as in the adults among whom it is far more common. Here at Joslin, our physicians generally prescribe lifestyle changes (careful diets and more exercise) and oral medications as needed.
Want more information?
What life is like for a kid with diabetes
Common questions about type 1 diabetes
Common questions about type 2 diabetes