Diabetes 'tidal wave' imminent for young people, says global expert

The increased time young people are spending on digital channels, such as TV subscription services and gaming, is creating a new culture of “sedentary children”, with a leading professor calling for urgent action to “change mindsets” on diabetes following the publication of a global report in The Lancet.

This rise in screen time is behind a generational change. For instance, the amount of time children under the age of two spend on digital devices has more than doubled in a 17-year period, with children aged between three and five spending up to three hours a day accessing digital channels.

The number of children and young people being treated for type 2 diabetes has grown by up to 50 per cent in just five years, highlighting the urgent need to tackle one of the nation’s biggest health challenges in childhood obesity.

Melanie Davies, Professor of Diabetes Medicine at the University of Leicester and Co-Director of the Leicester Diabetes Centre based at Leicester General Hospital, collaborated with 25 leading experts over four years to co-author the new report for The Lancet, which calls for global action to combat this devastating disease and close the gap in diabetes prevention, professional knowledge and care.

Professor Davies said:

“The statistics show that children are spending an increased proportion of their day using digital devices, rather than on more physical activities. Unfortunately, this is associated with an increase in the numbers of children and young people being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

“We have a new culture of sedentary children and we need urgent action to change mindsets when it comes to diet and lifestyle. It is the responsibility of all of us to act now to avoid further heartache and misery caused by type 2 diabetes, particularly in younger people.

“We know that under the current lockdown measures, the vast majority of our children’s learning will be delivered online - which makes it even more important that children have the opportunity for exercise and time away from their screens.”

Professor Davies added:

“Type 2 diabetes is a growing global problem with a devastating impact. While effective treatments and prevention strategies to combat diabetes exist, barriers to provision and access mean that, in most care settings, their use is scarce.”

The Commission had these key messages:

  • Access to insulin, education, and for blood glucose monitoring tools can prevent premature deaths and emergencies in young people with type 1 diabetes
  • There is a relationship between maternal hyperglycaemia and childhood obesity, which will require strategies to prevent type 2 diabetes in young people (YT2DM)
  • Considering the individual’s thoughts and behaviours in the context of wider societal pressures and expectations, especially in YT2DM, call for personalised care to reduce the premature development of long-term conditions and death
  • Environmental, behavioural, and socioeconomic causes of type 2 diabetes require a co-ordinated response across all aspects of society
  • The use of new therapies such as SGLT2 inhibitors, and GLP-1 receptor agonists can reduce cardiovascular–renal diseases and death in patients with type 2 diabetes
  • Team-based care that enables data collection in clinical practice improves the quality of electronic medical records and establishes registers for risk factors, prevention, and treatment
  • Healthcare professional (HCP) training and upskilling and the use of technology can improve the accessibility, sustainability, and affordability of diabetes prevention and care

Providing a pathway for a model of care as set out in The Lancet report key messages, if initiated in the right way and supported by governments, can increase the lifespan of people by preventing and managing diabetes and other long-term conditions.

Scientists from the internationally-acclaimed Leicester Diabetes Centre have  a strong track record in type 2 diabetes research, prevention and education, having developed the first national programme to educate people with diabetes and also establishing a comprehensive training suite to upskill healthcare professionals.

Worldwide, 463 million people have diabetes and, on average, diabetes reduces life expectancy in middle-aged people by 4 to 10 years. It also independently increases the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and cancer by 1.3 to 3 times.