A new study finds that the type of diabetes normally found in adults, type-2 diabetes, has increased significantly among children worldwide during the past 15 years. The increasing incidence of the disease signals the continuing expansion of obesity around the globe.
Obesity, once considered an exclusively Western disorder, is threatening the rest of the world. A telling indicator is the global rise of type-2 diabetes among adults, a major complication of being overweight. Now, a study in the Journal of Pediatrics reveals that the disease is being reported more frequently in children.
"Kid should not have it at all," says Philip Zeitler of the University of Colorado, one of the physicians who conducted the study,
"Age is an important risk factor for type-2 diabetes, and so in order for kids to get type-2, they have to be pretty obese and pretty sedentary," he adds.
Dr. Zeitler and a colleague at Sheba Medical Center in Israel reviewed all medical articles on type-2 diabetes in children and adolescents published since 1978.
They found that the prevalence of the disorder has risen from three percent of new diabetes cases among U.S. teenagers to up to 45 percent. It has also become the leading cause of diabetes in Japanese and Taiwanese children and is increasingly common elsewhere where such records are kept in Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Europe.
Dr. Zeitler says that even in areas without such data, such as India, the recorded increase in adult type-2 diabetes predicts a surge among younger people because statistics for other regions show that the disorder eventually appears in the younger generation.
"What it shows is what we have seen in the United States for about 15, 20 years is now occurring worldwide and is going to become a serious health problem," he notes.
Until recently, the main health challenges to developing countries were famine and infectious diseases like AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. But as the rising prevalence of youth type-2 diabetes shows, obesity is now a looming specter wherever countries are undergoing a shift to urbanization, modern technology and food processing, and more leisure time.
University of Rhode Island anthropologist Marquisa LaVelle says the greatest increases in average body weight since the early 1950's have been among people in warmer climates.
"Worldwide rates of obesity have increased to the point where many societies have both under-nutrition and over-nutrition,” she explains. “Given the associations of obesity with chronic diseases, with diabetes, as high risk factors for heart disease and cancers of various sorts, this puts a burden on the developing world that they can ill afford."
In South Africa, Ms. LaVelle found urban Cape Town children taller, but significantly fatter than their ethnic counterparts in a rural area of the country, even in cases where social and economic status were similar. She also discovered that schoolchildren in Melbourne, Australia are heavier for their height than their aboriginal desert counterparts.
University of Oxford researcher Stanley Ulijaszek says the weight problem is especially prevalent among rural South Pacific islanders, where up to two-thirds of men and three-fourths of women are obese.
"When one thinks of New Guinea, it is to many people as back as the back of beyond [remote] as you can imagine,” he says. “However, if it is permeating the rural communities in these places, it is also permeating Amazonia, it is permeating rural communities across the world, so the epidemic is way beyond simply the industrial nations."
The researchers dismiss the notion that specific genetic traits make some populations more prone to obesity than others. They say the weight gain has occurred too rapidly among too many newly industrialized cultures to be caused by genes.
Marquisa LaVelle of the University of Rhode Island blames the modern way of living, with its dietary changes and decrease in physical activity.
"We are looking at a situation in which increased disease and decline in world health is inevitable," Ms. LaVelle adds.