Early education can cure America’s diabetes crisis

Satesh Bidaisee

The greatest health threat to America’s youth isn’t opioid addiction or cancer — it’s diabetes.

The number of children and teens diagnosed with type 2, so-called “adult” diabetes, increased 5 percent every year between 2002 and 2012, according to a national study from Wake Forest University.

The disease dooms millions of Americans to early deaths. And treating it costs more than $100 billion a year. Consequently, it’s the nation’s costliest chronic condition. Perhaps the saddest thing about all these stats is that diabetes is preventable. But America’s efforts to stop young people from contracting the disease have failed.

A new approach is needed — one that battles diabetes on a person-by-person basis, with rigorous, extensive, and individually targeted education programs.

Type 2 diabetes generally results from obesity, which prevents the body from naturally regulating blood sugar levels.

The percentage of children who are obese has more than tripled over the past half-century, so the prevalence of diabetes has surged as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in three Americans will have diabetes by 2050.

The condition can lead to a host of devastating health conditions. Half of all diabetes patients die of heart disease. Diabetes is the primary culprit behind nearly half of all cases of kidney failure. And diabetics are twice as likely to suffer from depression as nondiabetics.

Diabetic youth are especially at risk. More than 70 percent of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes as children or teens suffer from at least one diabetes-related complication.

It’s currently impossible to reverse the disease. And for a variety of reasons, diabetics have trouble adhering to their treatment plans and managing the condition. Just 10 percent of patients follow their doctor-recommended exercise, diet and medication regimens.

As a result of this non-adherence, many diabetics become sicker. Diabetics are hospitalized for complications related to their inability to adhere to their treatment regimens more than any patient group except the mentally ill.

The best way to manage the disease is to prevent it in the first place.

Education has proven an effective tool against the condition. For instance, patients who participated in an education program developed by England’s National Health Service that focused on physical activity and healthy lifestyle choices reduced their risk of developing diabetes by 80 percent.

U.S. groups are ramping up their education campaigns, too.

The American Diabetes Association recently held its first diabetes prevention camp for youth at risk of developing diabetes in Santa Clarita, California. There, students learned how improved nutrition and increased physical activity could help them dodge diabetes and live healthier lives.

The YMCA of the East Bay and U.C. Berkeley researchers recently developed a program that teaches overweight kids how to eat healthier. After a year of the program, participants were able to reduce their body-mass indexes and regulate their blood sugar levels more effectively.

Meanwhile, Reach In! Reach Out!, a type 2 diabetes prevention program in Chicago, offers cooking classes to help kids and parents learn how to prepare healthy meals. Folks can also participate in yoga, dance, and karate sessions.

St. George’s University in Grenada, where I am a professor, is training students to tackle the diabetes epidemic when they graduate. We’re working with our country’s government to provide exercise classes to locals and boost physical activity in schools.

Our students and staff are also training Grenadians to use the “Touch Toe Test” to screen for diabetes. This simple procedure involves applying gentle pressure to toes. Diabetes can sometimes cause peripheral neuropathy, or nerve damage in hands or feet. That can lead to injuries, severe infections, and even amputation. Since its implementation, the test has been proven to reduce the number of diabetes-related amputations in patients.

The rising prevalence of adult diabetes among children is a deadly, costly trend. Early education and intervention can prevent untold suffering.

Satesh Bidaisee is a professor of public health and preventative medicine and assistant dean for graduate studies at St. George’s University in Grenada.