Teenagers in China have a rate of type 2 diabetes four times higher than US teens, according to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).
The rise is a result of an increasingly overweight Chinese population. The country has seen dramatic changes in its population's weight, diets and physical activity during its unprecedented economic growth in the last two decades.
US rates on the rise
Researchers found that 1.9 percent of Chinese adolescents age 12 to 18 had type 2 diabetes. This compares to 0.5 percent of US teens.
Although they seem to fare better than their Chinese counterparts, US teens should still be concerned. Nearly one in four American adolescents may be on the verge of developing type 2 diabetes or could already be diabetes, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics earlier this year.
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The UNC study also found that teens in China had higher rates of inflammation, a cardiovascular disease risk factor. Chinese teens had a 12.1 percent risk, compared to 8.5 percent of US teens.
Younger children at risk, too
The researchers found that Chinese children ages 7 to 17 have a 1.9 percent diabetes rate and a 14.9 percent prediabetes rate. This was based on their levels of HbA1c, or glycosylated hemoglobin, which measures the average plasma-glucose concentration over a two- or three-month period.
"The findings suggest a very high burden of chronic disease risk starting at a young age, with 1.7 million Chinese children ages 7 to 18 having diabetes and another 27.7 million considered prediabetic," said Barry Popkin, Ph.D, professor of nutrition at UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Popkin said that one-third of children under age 18 in China had high levels of at least one cardiometabolic risk factor.
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Immense health care costs impending
"These estimates highlight the huge burden that China's health care system is expected to face if nothing changes," said Popkin.
Popkin found unprecendented changes for children age 7 and older regarding diet, weight and cardiovascular risk.
Researchers are concerned that they are seeing high levels of risk across the country in both rural and urban settings. Both high- and low-income areas are affected as well.
China, US teens face similar challenges
Adolescents in China and the US face similar challenges when it comes to developing diabetes.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that being overweight increases the risk for type 2 diabetes. Unhealthy food choices, physical inactivity and a family history of diabetes increases their chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
While there is no simple solution to the obesity epidemic, certain changes can help children and families make healthier choices.
Improve access to healthy foods, drinks
The CDC suggests several steps to help states, communities and parents change the food landscape. States and communities can provide better access to healthier food and provide incentives to supermarkets to establish their businesses in low-income areas or to sell healthier foods.
States and communities can also put fruits, vegetables and salad bars in schools. They can enroll schools in nutrition programs and limit the sale of sweetened and sugary beverages on school campuses.
They can also sponsor and support daily physical education in schools and childcare facilities. Creating and maintaining safe and appealing parks and playgrounds can help increase physical activity in neighborhoods.
Limit media time
The CDC also encourages parents to limit media time for kids to no more than one to two hours a day at home, school or child care.
They can also provide plenty of fruits and vegetables at home and limit fats and sugars in snacks and family meals.
Parents can also eliminate sugary beverages at home. They can opt to serve water or low-fat milk.