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Why Diabetes Among Chinese Kids is Exploding

Diabetes among Chinese kids is exploding

It's no secret that diabetes is an epidemic not only in the United States but around the world. What may come as a surprise, however, is that diabetes among Chinese kids is exploding, with 42% of children having pre-diabetes, diabetes, or a risk factor for diabetes.

How do Chinese kids compare with US kids?

Until a few years ago, people generally did not associate type 2 diabetes with children or adolescents, because it is typically considered to be an adult-onset disease. Unfortunately, type 2 diabetes is no longer a rarity in kids, and the number one reason it is not, according to WebMD, is overweight and obesity.

Nearly 20 percent of children in the United States are overweight, and kids who are overweight have twice the risk of developing diabetes as do normal weight children. Other risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes in children are a family history of diabetes, being female, problems with insulin resistance, and being black, American Indian, Asian, or Hispanic.

In a new study headed by investigators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, research indicates that Chinese teenagers have a diabetes rate that is nearly four times that of their peers in the United States. Like their American counterparts, Chinese kids are at greater risk of the chronic disease because they are increasingly overweight.

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The data evaluated for the study came from the China Health and Nutrition Survey, which spanned the years 1989 through 2011 and involved more than 29,000 people in 300 communities throughout China. During these two decades, while the Chinese economy was growing, so apparently were many of its citizens.

Analysis of the data showed the following:

  • 11 percent of Chinese children and 30 percent of Chinese adults are overweight
  • About 42 percent of Chinese kids have one or more of the following: pre-diabetes, diabetes, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, high cholesterol, high C-reactive protein (a marker for diabetes and cardiovascular disease), and low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol
  • 27.7 million Chinese kids have hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) levels indicating pre-diabetes or diabetes. HbA1c is an indicator of how well diabetes is being controlled. A HbA1c test tells clinicians a person's average blood sugar level over a 2 to 3 month period.
  • Among Chinese children age 12 to 18, diabetes was found in 1.9 percent compared with 0.5 percent in US kids
  • 12.1 percent of Chinese adolescents had a high inflammation risk, compared with 8.5 percent of adolescents in the US. Inflammation is a key risk for cardiovascular disease.

According to the study's head researcher, Barry Popkin, Phd, WR Kenan Jr Distinguished Professor of nutrition at UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health, "What is unprecedented is the changes in diet, weight and cardiovascular risk for children age 7 and older." He pointed out that their findings suggest "a very high burden of chronic disease risk starting at a young age, with 1.7 million Chinese children ages 7-18 having diabetes and another 27.7 million considered prediabetic."

Type 2 diabetes is a condition largely caused by lifestyle choices, including dietary selections, amount of physical exercise, and weight control. Adoption of Western ways by Chinese children (and adults) could well be a key reason why diabetes among Chinese kids is exploding.

Yan S et al. The expanding burden of cardiometabolic risk in China: the China Health and Nutrition Survey. Obesity Reviews 2012 Jun 28. Online. DOI:10.1111/j.1467-789X.2012.01016.x

Image: Wikimedia Commons