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Type 2 diabetes in children and young adults

Type 2 diabetes is usually more commonly seen in middle-age or older adults. But with the rise of obesity in children, it is now also being diagnosed in young people, in particular among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth and children with non-European backgrounds.

Type 2 diabetes can lead to long-term complications such as heart and kidney disease. With more young people developing type 2 diabetes, complications are likely to occur at a younger age. Proper treatment is, therefore, essential for preventing long-term health problems.

How is type 2 diabetes different from type 1 diabetes?

Sometimes a young person with type 2 diabetes may be initially mistaken for having type 1 diabetes until a complete assessment is done.

As compared to type 1 diabetes, there is a stronger inherited tendency to developing type 2 diabetes, but in young people, it is largely a result of lifestyle habits.

Which young people are most at risk of developing type 2 diabetes?

Children and young adults most at risk of developing type 2 diabetes are those who are:

  • overweight or obese AND have any two of the following:
    • blood relatives with type 2 diabetes
    • an Aboriginal or Pacific Islander background or other high-risk ethnic groups
    • signs of insulin resistance as diagnosed by a health professional.

How does type 2 diabetes develop?

Type 2 diabetes in young people is thought to result from insulin resistance, which means that the insulin does not work properly. The hormone insulin is made in our bodies by an organ called the pancreas and has an important role in regulating blood glucose levels.

Young people with insulin resistance need to make more insulin than is ‘normally’ required to regulate their blood glucose levels. Overweight and obese young people are more likely to have insulin resistance which alone can cause health problems.

Insulin resistance can progress to type 2 diabetes if the young person’s pancreas cannot continue to make enough insulin to overcome their insulin resistance. Blood glucose levels then start to rise to higher than regular levels. Type 2 diabetes is more likely to be diagnosed during puberty, as hormonal changes can lead to increased insulin resistance.

Are there any symptoms of type 2 diabetes?

A young person with type 2 diabetes may have no symptoms. If there are symptoms, these are usually mild and in most cases, develop gradually. High blood glucose levels may cause symptoms such as thirst and passing lots of urine.

How is type 2 diabetes diagnosed?

  • Diagnosis needs a comprehensive medical assessment by a health professional. They will ask about risk factors and any symptoms and look for signs of insulin resistance.
  • A fasting blood glucose or an Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (OGTT) may also be done. Fasting insulin levels may also be tested.
  • From the age of 10 years, young people at risk of type 2 diabetes should have a fasting blood test done every two years.

For more information about fasting blood and OGTT read our fact sheet Understanding pre-diabetes.

How is type 2 diabetes treated?

Treatment depends on how unwell the young person is when they are diagnosed.

In some young people who have no symptoms, lifestyle changes—such as healthy eating and keeping physically active—may be the only treatment they need. Information and advice is available at Get Up & Grow: Healthy Eating and Physical Activity for Early Childhood resources on the Department of Health website.

If adopting a healthy lifestyle is not enough to control the young person’s diabetes, there are medications that can help reduce insulin resistance, which their health professional may prescribe.

Is type 2 diabetes serious?

Whether or not treatment includes tablets or insulin injections, type 2 diabetes is serious and can potentially cause long-term complications.

With more young people developing type 2 diabetes, complications such as heart disease and kidney disease are also likely to occur at a younger age.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and having regular check-ups is essential to staying well and preventing the development of long-term health problems.

Can anything be done to prevent type 2 diabetes in young people?

Unlike type 1 diabetes, the early development of type 2 diabetes in young people can be prevented with the help of healthy lifestyle habits.

For more information

To find out more about type 2 diabetes in children and young adults, contact the NDSS Helpline on 1300 136 588.

The following websites are sources of information to help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

Read more about how to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.