The new report, presented this weekend in Philadelphia at the American Diabetes Association's annual meeting, shows a 23% rise in rates of type 1 diabetes and a 21% rise in type 2 diabetes rates from 2001 to 2009.
Both trends are sounding alarm bells for researchers.
The rise in type 1 diabetes is "alarming," says researcher Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD, MSPH, RD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even so, it was not a complete surprise, as a similar increase has been reported among European youth, Mayer-Davis says.
"This is frightening," says Robert E. Ratner, MD, chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association.
"These are harbingers of adult health problems," he tells WebMD. If the trend is not reversed, there could be an epidemic of heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure when this generation is age 25-35, Ratner says.
Why the Rise?
It's not clear why type 1 diabetes is becoming more common. One theory holds that today's infants are exposed to fewer viruses and bacteria that help the immune system mature, says researcher Dana Dabelea, MD, PhD, of the University of Colorado in Denver.
Some studies also suggest a possible link between very early exposure to cow's milk and certain foods to a higher risk of type 1 diabetes. "Studies are exploring whether later introduction of some foods to the infant's diet may be protective," Dabelea tells WebMD. "But we really don't know the cause."
The rise in type 2 diabetes, though dramatic, was less surprising. That's because obesity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and about 1 in 3 U.S. kids is overweight or obese. More than 90% of kids with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, the new study shows.
Adult Health Risks
The government-funded study is tracking cases of diabetes among people younger than 20 years in five states through 2015. The researchers use that data to provide national estimates.
They estimate that as of 2009, about 189,000 Americans younger than 20 had diabetes. That includes more than 169,000 with type 1 diabetes and more than 19,000 with type 2 diabetes.
The study also suggests that children and teens with diabetes may already be developing complications that could affect their adult health. About 12% of youths with type 1 diabetes and 26% of those with type 2 diabetes have signs of nerve damage that could increase their future risk of foot and leg amputations, Dabelea says.
Kids with diabetes are also more prone to early damage to the nerve system regulating the heart and its vessels, Mayer-Davis says. And 9% of those with type 1 diabetes and 22% of those with type 2 diabetes have early signs of kidney disease.
Reducing Kids' Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Parents can do a lot to improve their kids' health and reduce their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, the researchers say.
The new study shows that about 1 in 3 kids with diabetes watches TV for more than two hours a day, and those who watch at least three hours of TV per day have higher blood sugar and triglyceride levels than those who watch less. And the study also shows that about 90% of kids with diabetes eat more than the recommended amount of saturated fat.
It's never too late to start turning things around. And if you're pregnant, it's not too soon to start, either.
"Things you do -- in terms of diet and physical activity -- can affect the chance of your child being obese or having type 2 diabetes. I also advocate breastfeeding for as long as possible," Mayer-Davis says.
These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.