Prediabetes: The Silent Danger Facing U.S. Teens

A study found it may affect one in three adolescents. Here’s what you can do to lower your teen’s prediabetes risk.

A nurse checks for diabetes in a teen by taking blood from his finger.

Updated on August 2, 2023.

One in three teenagers in the United States is believed to have prediabetes, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2022. 

Prediabetes is a condition in which your blood glucose, or blood sugar, is elevated but not high enough to be classified as diabetes. Prediabetes increases your risk of type 2 diabetes and other serious illnesses such as heart disease and stroke.

The study, based on National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data from 1999-2000 and 2015-2018, revealed a number of concerning trends. When researchers looked at surveys from people between the ages of 12 and 19, they discovered that: 

  • Prediabetes rates increased between the two time periods for both boys and girls. For teen boys, the rates went up by 20.6 percent; for girls, 12.5 percent. 
  • The rates of prediabetes among the entire group shot up from 11.6 percent to 28.2 percent.
  • The rates increased among teens in all body mass index (BMI) categories, including those who were classified as underweight or normal weight (9.4 percent to 15.3 percent).

Overall, the study paints a concerning picture of teens’ type 2 diabetes risk.

What do the numbers mean?

The growing rates of prediabetes in teenagers are likely a reflection of certain trends over the past few decades. These include an overreliance on heavily processed foods, more sedentary lifestyles, increased environmental pollution, and rising obesity rates. 

Obesity is linked to prediabetes because it interferes with the body’s ability to control blood sugar. If you or your kids are overweight, ask your family healthcare provider (HCP) about diabetes screenings at your next appointment. 

Other factors that may indicate a need to get your teen tested for diabetes include: 

  • A family history of diabetes 
  • Having other risk factors for heart disease, like high cholesterol or high blood pressure 
  • An inactive lifestyle
  • Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a metabolic condition that usually begins around puberty
  • Having acanthosis nigricans, or dark, sometimes velvety patches of skin around the neck, groin, and/or armpits caused by greater amounts of insulin in the blood

What can I do if my teen has prediabetes?

The good news about prediabetes in teens—or having prediabetes at any age—is that it’s possible to reverse the condition and greatly lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Making these lifestyle changes can help get your blood sugar under control: 

Get moving. Teenagers should get 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous intensity exercise every day, in addition to at least three days per week of muscle building activities. It’s also important that they reduce their time spent sitting down, especially for screen time. Intense practice and conditioning for sports teams counts, but so does moderate exercise, like walking briskly, a gentle bike ride, or intensive chores (like vacuuming and washing windows).

Make small diet changes that’ll add up over time. It can help to work with an HCP or a dietitian to create a diet plan to lower your risk of diabetes and heart disease. These can include:

  • Limit sugary soda and fruit juice. Encourage plain water instead.
  • Significantly reduce your intake of packaged, processed foods.
  • Eat plenty of whole fruits and vegetables throughout the day.
  • Plan meals, shop for food, and cook together regularly.
  • Help your kids to self-regulate the amount they eat by focusing on their meals instead of eating in front of screens.
  • Don’t demand or suggest that they “clean their plates.” Help them learn to trust their own hunger and fullness cues.

Teach them about the dangers of smoking. Smoking increases your risk of diabetes and other life-threatening conditions like lung cancer and COPD. Help your teens avoid secondhand smoke and stop or never starting vaping.

What resources can help me manage my teen’s prediabetes?

If you or your teen have prediabetes and you’re trying to reverse it, don’t go it alone. There are people and resources available to help. Consider reaching out to one of these resources for help in creating your diabetes prevention plan: 

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers lifestyle change programs in towns across the country. Programs include healthy cooking classes, information sessions on diabetes, and opportunities to work with trained lifestyle coaches.  
  • Your local YMCA may also offer diabetes prevention programs, along with exercise classes and personal training sessions. 
  • The AskMD consultation feature on Sharecare can give personalized advice for managing your diabetes risk factors. 

Prediabetes doesn’t always have symptoms, so if you’re concerned, ask your HCP for a screening test. Learning your results sooner rather than later can put you on track toward a healthier lifestyle—and preventing a type 2 diabetes diagnosis in the future.

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