5 Surprising Facts About Diabetes

Although diabetes is definitely on the rise, media hype and misconceptions keep many parents from getting the whole picture about the illness -- or from understanding the best ways to help kids avoid or manage it. "Diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases in children after asthma, but the percentage of kids who have it is still relatively low," says Parents advisor Lori Laffel, MD, chief of the pediatric, adolescent, and young-adult section at Harvard's Joslin Diabetes Center. That's reassuring news, but if your child is one of the kids at risk, the threat to his health is very real. Here are five important truths about this serious illness.

Fact: Most Children Who Get Diabetes Aren't Fat

Type 2 diabetes, which is usually triggered by obesity, has gotten a lot of press because it used to strike only adults and is now being diagnosed in kids as young as 6, says Dr. Laffel. Alarming as that is, a greater number of kids get type 1, an autoimmune disease that's been rising 4 percent a year since the 1970s -- especially in young kids. Only 3,700 children are diagnosed with type 2 every year compared with 15,000 who develop type 1, according to a large study that provides the first detailed look at diabetes in U.S. kids. In many ways, the two forms of diabetes are very different. In type 1, which has no known cause, the immune system mistakenly destroys healthy cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, the hormone that helps the body get energy from food. To make up for the shortfall, children typically need injections of insulin several times a day. In type 2, the pancreas usually makes plenty of insulin (at least at first), but cells throughout the body have trouble using it -- a condition known as insulin resistance. But no matter what the type, diabetes causes high blood-sugar levels when glucose from food -- the body's equivalent of gasoline for a car -- builds up because it can't get into cells without insulin. Over time, excess blood sugar can damage organs and tissues throughout the body.

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