Our Mothers Are Always Dressed in Black

A 77% Pandemic Spike in Type 2 Diabetes of Youth

In so many ways, it’s become plain that children have carried a big burden in the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, there have been disruptions to their social and educational lives. They’ve suffered trauma from losing parents and caregivers. And then there’s the documented rise in obesity. But just last week came some of the most bracing news for the health of our youth in the pandemic. New diagnoses of type 2 diabetes in youth have spiked by 77 percent over the last two years according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

This is daunting because type 2 diabetes affects not just their health today, but also their prospects for health over a lifetime.

An Overwhelming Flood of New Cases

Unfortunately, type 2 diabetes in youth has been rising for some time. It used to be a rare diagnosis, but cases have been rising by four to five percent annually for decades, and thus the prevalence almost doubled between 2001 and 2017.

As if that trend were not bad enough, though, the flood of new cases in the pandemic has been overwhelming. Senior author Megan Kelsey describes it:

“In the spring of 2020 we were inundated with new youth-onset type 2 diabetes cases. We were used to seeing 50-60 new cases per year and that increased to more than 100 new cases in a year.”

Perhaps the most troubling aspect in this data is the great disparity of impact by racial and ethnic groups. Among White youth, the rate of new cases actually dropped. But for Black youth it doubled and it nearly doubled for Hispanic youth. So disparities in the effects of the pandemic will surely fuel rising health disparities for years to come.

These reports come from the U.S. However, it is not clear that other countries have seen such large increases.

A Rise Seen in Other U.S. Studies

In a separate study from Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, researchers are reporting similar trends. In fact, Sean DeLacey and colleagues report a 490 percent increase in new diagnoses for Black youth. They describe how this finding links back to the pandemic:

“Indeed, the pandemic affected children’s lives in many ways aside from direct infection. Among them were school closings, discontinuance of sports and afterschool activities, increased parental illness, and illness among family members. Although school closings helped prevent disease spread, they likely also had a large impact on the metabolic health of students.”

The Intersection of Social, Psychological, and Biological Health

Kelsey and her colleagues make it clear that the cause of this spike of type 2 diabetes is not entirely clear. Social and psychological stresses are likely contributors. But it’s also possible that infections could play a role, too. It’s also not clear whether this huge spike is a U.S. phenomenon or something seen in many other countries. For example, a recent report from the UK and Ireland describes only a 17 percent rise in diabetes diagnoses, and those were mostly type 1.

So we have more to learn about the effects of this pandemic on the metabolic health of our youth. Most important, we can learn how to prevent this problem from growing even larger over time.

Click here for the study by Kelsey and colleagues in the Journal of Pediatrics and here for the DeLacey study in the Journal of Diabetes. For further perspective, click here, here, and here.

Our Mothers Are Always Dressed in Black, painting by Ivan Milev / WikiArt

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August 24, 2022