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Report on fewer children dying from diabetes offers good, but not celebratory, news

child with insulin pump
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
The death rate among children and teens with diabetes has plummeted dramatically — 61 percent — over the past four decades.

Positive health trends are always great to report, and last week researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released some truly welcomed statistics: The death rate among children and teens with diabetes has plummeted dramatically — 61 percent — over the past four decades.

Using data from the National Vital Statistics System, CDC officials found that there were 2.69 diabetes-related deaths per million children and teens in 1968-1969. Forty years later, in 2008-2009, that number had dropped to 1.05 per million.

The decrease was greatest (78 pecent) among children under the age of 10. It was less impressive (52 percent) among those aged 10 to 19.

The decline occurred even as the incidence of diabetes rose. According to preliminary data reported earlier this year from the CDC-funded Search for Diabetes in Youth study, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes jumped 21 percent among U.S. youth from 2001 to 2009, while type 1 diabetes rose 23 percent.

Type 1 diabetes, which is usually diagnosed in childhood or young adulthood, is an autoimmune disease. The body’s immune cells attack and destroy the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body’s fat, liver and muscle cells do not respond to insulin, resulting in high and potentially dangerous levels of blood sugar (glucose) building up in the blood. Being obese increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and the obesity epidemic of recent decades is considered a major factor in the rise of the disease in children and youth, as well as in adults. The reason behind the rise in type 1 diabetes is unknown, but some experts believe it may be linked to environmental factors.

In 2010, an estimated 215,000 Americans under the age of 20 had diabetes, according to the CDC.

Not all good news

The CDC researchers suggest that improved diabetes care and an increased awareness of diabetes symptoms, which possibly results in earlier treatment, may explain why fewer young people are dying from the disease.

But the researchers also unearthed a troubling statistic: Since 1984, the death rate for young people aged 10 to 19 with diabetes has increased by 1.6 percent. The reason for this rise is unknown, but one possibility, write the researchers, is that “youths who had diabetes diagnosed before age 10 years and who previously might have died before reaching age 10 years are living longer and dying at ages 10-19 years.”

A 2005 study conducted in Sweden supports this hypothesis. It found that among the 10,000 Swedish children diagnosed with diabetes between 1977 and 2000, the majority of deaths occurred when the young people were about 15 years old.

Need for continued improvement

Although the statistics presented in the CDC report offer some good news, they are not a cause for celebration. As the report notes, almost all diabetes-related deaths among young people with the disease are preventable.

“These findings demonstrate improvement in diabetes mortality among youths but also indicate a need for continued improvement in diabetes diagnosis and care,” the researchers conclude.

The CDC report was published in the Nov. 2 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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