3 Simple Ways to Assess Children's Risk of Early-Onset Diabetes

Children with metabolic syndrome are more apt to become diabetic as young adults.

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Children who have high blood pressure and high cholesterol and are overweight are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes as young adults. How's that for enough motivation to hide the leftover Christmas candy?

Scientists have been trying to figure how the big spike in obesity among children will affect their health as adults. Evidence has been building that having what's called metabolic syndrome—a cluster of symptoms that include high blood pressure, low "good" cholesterol, abdominal obesity, high fasting glucose, and high triglycerides—vastly increases the risk of early heart disease and diabetes. Some children are even developing full-blown type 2 diabetes, which was almost unheard of two decades ago. But metabolic syndrome is hard to identify in kids, and last year the nation's cardiologists said children shouldn't be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, because the odds of progressing to diabetes or heart disease later in life weren't known.

This new research, published in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, might change that situation. The researchers, led by John Morrison at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, used existing surveys to track the health of girls from age 9 into adulthood, up to age 39. They found that children with blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) in the highest 20 percent were more likely to have type 2 diabetes by age 39. Race mattered, too, with black girls more likely to become diabetic. And having a parent with type 2 diabetes also upped the risk, as did having a blood glucose level in childhood of 100 milligrams per deciliter or higher, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) in the lowest 20 percent, and triglycerides in the highest 20 percent.

I'm not likely to have my grade-schooler's cholesterol and triglycerides assessed; that's hardly the standard pediatric checkup. But the new data can be useful to make a quick estimate of whether your child may be at increased risk of future health problems. Here's how:

1. Know your child's blood pressure. Your pediatrician should be taking your child's blood pressure at every office visit and should let you know if it's at all unusual. If not, you can borrow a friend's blood pressure cuff or stop by the pharmacy for a free check. Here's a blood pressure chart for children ages 11 through 17; the 50th percentile is a good place to be.

2. Check out your child's BMI. Use a BMI calculator for children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Child and Teen BMI Calculator is easy; type in height, weight, and date of birth. A healthy BMI ranges from the 5th to the 85th percentile. My average-looking 6-year-old is in the 45th percentile, which makes me happy indeed.

3. Do you or your partner have type 2 diabetes? Having a parent with type 2 diabetes increases the risk that a child will have it, too. Here's a good reason to have your own blood glucose levels checked, if you haven't recently.

If you can't answer, "Looks good!" to any of these three checkpoints, it's time to check in with your pediatrician. And it's also good motivation to keep working on healthful eating and exercise. I caved and sent my child to school with a Lunchables today, despite its appalling levels of sugar and fat, and zero fiber. It'll be brown rice tomorrow, kiddo. My colleague Katie Hobson recently reported on new efforts toward making more nutritious children's lunches. What's your strategy?