When Diabetes Strikes Early, So Do Complications

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Channelle Washington was about to start eighth grade when she learned she had type 2 diabetes, a disease that can no longer be called by its old name — "adult onset" diabetes.

Five percent of American children are now considered “severely obese,” according to the American Heart Association and that number is growing.

These are children with a body mass index of 35 or above who are at much higher risk of high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, and diabetes.

Diabetes is a disease that does damage over time. The more time it has, the more damage it can do. Long-term complications include blindness, kidney disease, amputation, heart attack, and stroke. As type 2 diabetes becomes more common in children, doctors are starting to see these complications in people still in their twenties.

Channelle was headed down that road. While she was at home with her parents, they made sure she monitored her blood sugars and generally kept track of her health. But when she left for college, the story changed.

“With independence comes lack of management,” she said. “I wasn’t taking medication anymore. I wasn’t testing very often. I wasn’t seeing a physician.”

She also wasn’t watching her weight, which peaked at 230 pounds. With her blood sugar unmanaged, she was not able to concentrate and her studies began to suffer.

More than 80 percent of children with type 2 diabetes have a parent with the disease. In Channelle’s case it was her mother. Her mother’s heart attack at age 45 was the wakeup call Channelle needed.

“That was frightening,” she said. “I took control over my life, my future, my health.” She attended a weight-loss camp where she learned how to keep her weight on track.

At the supermarket, she now frequents the fresh produce aisle instead of the soda aisle. She learned how to read labels. It was a “huge awakening,” she said, to discover that not all foods marketed as healthy really are.

Channelle is lucky. Today, at 23, her weight and her diabetes are under control. But almost 4,000 people under 20 are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes each year, and that number is growing. Not all may be as lucky as Channelle.


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