Early-Onset Diabetes: “A more aggressive disease”

It’s no surprise that type 2 diabetes leads to heart disease and strokes. Diabetics age 50 and older are four times more likely than their non-diabetic peers to have a heart attack and three times more likely to suffer a stroke.  

Research suggests that you’re even more vulnerable if diagnosed with diabetes before age 45, called early-onset diabetes.

Scientists at Kaiser Permanente Northwest/Hawaii in Portland, Oregon, found that men and women ages 18 to 44 who had type 2 diabetes were 14 times more likely to have a heart attack and 30 times more likely to have a stroke than young adults of the same age who did not have diabetes.*

“Early-onset type 2 diabetes appears to be a more aggressive disease from a cardiovascular standpoint,” reports lead author Teresa Hillier, M.D., from the Center for Health Research at Kaiser Permanente.

Hillier and colleagues studied close to 8,000 men and women ages 18 to 44 who had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Not only did they suffer heart attacks and strokes at alarming rates, they also struggled with more severe problems related to diabetes. Compared to adults who developed diabetes at a later age, they were 80% more likely to need insulin within two years of diagnosis.

Younger adult diabetics were also more likely to develop microalbuminuria, a diabetes complication that impairs the kidneys and also increases heart disease risk.

More troubling news: Given the skyrocketing rates of obesity among young people in the U.S. and, for that matter, worldwide, early cases of type 2 diabetes will no doubt continue to rise, and to epidemic proportions. Urges Dr. Hillier: “We’ve got to do more to become healthier in our eating habits, exercise, and body weight.”

The good news: Adopting healthier habits can make a tremendous difference in cutting the risk of getting diabetes. Many studies have found losing weight, even modest amounts, and walking at least 30 minutes daily can dramatically reduce risk.

And there’s much you can even after being diagnosed with the disease. The Pritikin Program has proven extremely effective in normalizing the blood sugar levels of type 2 diabetics. Of particular note is a large study in which UCLA researchers followed 652 diabetic men and women attending the Pritikin Longevity Center. Within three weeks, 76% of those not yet on oral medications were able to lower their blood sugar to normal ranges.**

Of those on oral meds, 70% decreased their blood sugar levels to normal levels, and, as a result, no longer needed drugs.

And the earlier type 2 diabetics start with healthy lifestyle changes, the better, says lead research Dr. James Barnard of UCLA. “It’s clear from our research that if we can get diabetics early and get them started on the Pritikin Program, we can actually reverse type 2 diabetes.”

New research has also found that daily exercise and a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables is even more effective than medications at preventing type 2 diabetes. Scientists at George Washington University found that pre-diabetics following this diet-and-exercise approach were, after three years, 50% less likely to develop full-blown diabetes than pre-diabetics taking metformin (brand name is Glucophage), a drug used to control high blood sugar.***

* Diabetes Care, 2003; 26: 2999-3005.

** Diabetes Care, 1994; 17:1469-1472.

*** New England Journal of Medicine, 2002; 346: 393-403.

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