Prediabetes: The Silent Danger Facing U.S. Teens

It affects up to one in five 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.

Medically reviewed in May 2021

Updated on April 5, 2022

A startling one in five United States teenagers was found to have prediabetes in a study published in JAMA

Prediabetes is a condition in which your blood glucose, or blood sugar levels, are higher than normal, but aren’t high enough for you to be considered diabetic. Prediabetes increases your risk of both type 2 diabetes and other serious conditions like heart disease and stroke

The study, which was based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), revealed a number of concerning trends. 

When researchers looked at medical tests and interviews that were done between 2005 and 2014, they realized that: 

  • Adolescent boys were more likely than girls to have prediabetes—22 percent of boys versus 13 percent of girls.   
  • Black and Hispanic youths were at especially high risk for teen prediabetes, with 21 percent of black teenagers and 23 percent of Hispanic teenagers testing positive. 
  • Black and Hispanic teenagers were also much more likely to have undiagnosed diabetes.   

Although researchers found no increase in these rates over time, the number of affected teens turned out to be higher than estimates from past studies, which underscores the importance of screening at-risk teens. 

What do the numbers mean? 

The high rates of prediabetes in teenagers are likely a reflection of the childhood obesity epidemic in America. Obesity is linked to prediabetes because it interferes with your 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 reasons to get tested include: 

  • A family history of diabetes 
  • Having risk factors for heart disease like high cholesterol or high blood pressure 
  • Being older than 45 
  • Having a history of diabetes during pregnancy or giving birth to a baby over 9 pounds 

What can I do if I have prediabetes? 

The good news about prediabetes in teens—or at any age—is that it’s possible to reverse it by making certain lifestyle changes. Take these steps to help get your blood sugar back under control: 

Get moving. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, five days a week—or get a total of 150 minutes over the course of the week. Research suggests that moderate exercises like walking briskly or swimming laps may be even more helpful in combatting prediabetes than vigorous exercises like running or playing tennis. 

Theoretically, that’s because moderate exercise tends to burn fat more than it burns glucose (blood sugar). Getting rid of that fat frees up your muscles, allowing them to absorb sugars after you eat, which can keep your blood sugar from spiking. 

Make small diet changes that’ll add up over time. Work with your HCP to create a diet plan that’ll lower your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Making small changes, one at a time, like cutting out soda or eating a salad before each meal will add up towards a healthier lifestyle. 

Quit smoking. Smoking increases your risk of diabetes and other life-threatening conditions like lung cancer and COPD. 

Smart food choices and physical activity can help you shed pounds, which may have a big effect on your blood sugar levels. One study found that people who lost just 7 percent of their body weight were much more likely to reverse their prediabetes—that comes out to losing about 12 pounds if you weigh 170lbs. 

If you or your teen have prediabetes and you’re trying to lose weight, don’t go it alone. There are people and resources available to help.  

What resources can help me manage my prediabetes? 

Consider reaching out to one of these resources for help in creating your diabetes prevention plan: 

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer 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 programs like this, along with exercise classes and personal training sessions. 
  • The AskMD consultation feature on Sharecare can give personalized advice for managing your diabetes risk factors. 

If you or your teen are at risk for prediabetes, ask your HCP for a screening—there aren’t usually symptoms, so it’s possible to have prediabetes for ages without realizing it. Learning your results sooner, rather than later, can put you back on track towards a healthier lifestyle and prevent a diabetes diagnosis.

Article sources open article sources

Menke A, Casagrande S, Cowie CC. “Prevalence of Diabetes in Adolescents Aged 12 to 19 Years in the United States, 2005-2014.” JAMA. 2016;316(3):344–345.
American Diabetes Association. “Understanding A1C: Diagnosis.” 2022. Accessed April 5, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Prediabetes – Your Chance to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes.” December 21, 2021. Accessed April 5, 2022.
Zipf G, Chiappa M, et al. “National health and nutrition examination survey: plan and operations, 1999-2010.” Vital Health Stat 1. 2013 Aug;(56):1-37. 
Duke Health. “Moderate Exercise Might Be More Effective at Combatting Pre-Diabetes.” July 18, 2016. Accessed April 5, 2022.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP).” August 2021. Accessed April 5, 2022.

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