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Fighting Back Against Type 2 Diabetes in Kids

NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser (left) interviews 16-year-old Shannon Conder, who has had a hard time controlling her Type 2 Diabetes.

It hasn’t been so long ago that kids went outside to play. That’s right. Out the front door, down the street, meet up with a bunch of other kids. If you didn’t have a lot of money you made it up: kick the can, stick hockey, sand lot ball.

But not anymore. It’s now estimated that the average American kid spends 7.5 hours a day sitting … I want to emphasize that … SITTING in front of a screen of some kind. That could be a video game, a television set or a computer.

The only thing moving in these scenarios are the eyes in the head. And the children of America, just like their parents, have gotten bigger and bigger because of it.

You’ve all seen the statistics on the grown-ups. Two out of three Americans are overweight or obese and getting fatter.

Now we hear for the first time how this is doing irreparable harm to our kids in a way that has not been fully understood before. Kids by the thousands are developing type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes is the body’s inability to convert all the sugar it takes in to enough useable energy, and until recently, the type-2 form was almost never seen in children.

But in the last decade or so, that’s changed. At least 3,600 new cases of type 2 diabetes were diagnosed each year between 2002 and 2005, the latest years data is available. And a new study done by the National Institutes of Health is especially alarming. It found current treatments that are effective in adults are not working in kids. Even worse, the study found kids are getting sicker with the disease faster than their grown-up counterparts.

That means a 16-year-old today could be expected to have his or her first heart attack in the prime of their lives, perhaps in their 30s. Or face the real possibility of an amputation or blindness.

There is, of course, no guarantee that this will happen to today’s child diabetics when they turn into adults. But the risk factors are there. And the thing that struck me so profoundly in reporting a recent story about childhood type 2 diabetes is that the disease is almost completely preventable.

About 80 percent of all children who develop diabetes are overweight or obese. And they got that way by being allowed to sit in front of the TV, eat the wrong foods and get no exercise.

The pediatric endocrinologist who chaired the NIH study, Dr. Phil Zeitler of the University of Colorado was mourning all this the other day when we talked to him about children with type 2.

Parents today are busy working and in many neighborhoods, they’re afraid to let their kids run around outdoors because of the presence of crime and gangs and drug dealers.

“When I was a kid,” Zeitler said, “there were three TV stations in the neighborhood. And if the president was making a speech, there was nothing to watch.” So, he said, “you went outside.”

The fact that today’s children no longer do so just might be killing them.

Already, the United States spends more per capita for health care than any other nation on earth, with type 2 diabetes costing $174 billion dollars a year. And, if we don’t start doing something to reverse this trend, it’s going to become far worse. According to one estimate, a third of all children born in 2000 or later will be diagnosed with the disease at some point in their lives.

But, again, here’s the good news: Like the other experts we talked to, Zeitler feels type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease and could be prevented if the diets of children were monitored more closely. There’s still time to turn things around. But we adults must make the first move and insist — yes even demand — that our kids eat right and eat smart.

Tune in to the PBS NewsHour broadcast on Wednesday evening for Betty Ann Bowser’s full report on the increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes among the nation’s children and young adults.

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