Health officials believe the diabetes epidemic stems in part from bad eating habits and inactive lifestyles that might begin in childhood.
A prevention program in Stanislaus County is screening elementary schoolchildren for the warning signs leading to Type 2 diabetes, a common form of diabetes that used to occur mainly in adults but is now showing up in children.
It's estimated that 23.6 million Americans have diabetes, putting them at risk of kidney disease, vision problems, stroke and cardiovascular disease.
The nonprofit Doctors Medical Center Foundation is having the free, voluntary screenings this month and in December at 15 campuses in Modesto, Salida, Oakdale, Riverbank, Hughson, Waterford and Patterson. They started last week at Hart-Ransom Elementary School in Modesto.
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Thursday morning, 48 children and 41 parents were screened at Chrysler Elementary School in northwest Modesto. The participants filled out a simple health questionnaire before having their fingers pricked for reading their blood glucose.
Nurses also looked for a skin discoloration on their necks called acanthosis nigricans, a sign of insulin resistance or elevated insulin levels in the body.
Close to 15 percent of the children had blood glucose levels from 100 to 125 milligrams per deciliter, or in the pre-diabetes range. Four adults appeared to have pre-diabetes and one tested positive for diabetes. The children and adults were told to fast for eight hours before the screening.
Change in diet can help
Those with heightened blood sugar were advised to get a follow-up screening at the DMC Foundation or talk with their doctors about confirming the reading. It's believed that young people with pre-diabetes can make changes in their diet and behavior to avoid Type 2 diabetes later in life.
Some teachers at the schools are also using activity folders to teach students about healthy eating and physical activity.
"Not everybody who is pre-diabetic is likely to become diabetic," said Anne Stokman, program director for the DMC Foundation, which provides health education and services to the community. "But they have the opportunity to do something to prevent diabetes."
The prevention program grew from a pilot project in 2005 and 2007 that involved diabetes screenings for about 1,700 seventh- and eighth-graders at five local schools. Twenty-three percent of the students had acanthosis ni- gricans, 40 percent of those screened for blood glucose had pre-diabetes and two students were positive for diabetes.
Since the warning signs were evident in junior high students, it seemed to make sense to start educating younger students in elementary schools, Stokman said. The Stanislaus County Office of Education is paying for the screening at elementary schools, and the county Childhood Obesity/Diabetes Prevention Task Force is providing education materials in English and Spanish.
The program is targeting fifth-graders at participating schools, but parents also have brought younger siblings to have them checked. The foundation will offer diabetes screening at middle schools in the spring.
Dora Razo of Modesto had a form of diabetes during pregnancy, which is considered a risk factor for her children, so she had her two sons screened at Chrysler school. "We need to be careful with it," she said.
Cynthia Montoya signed the consent form for her son, Zackary, because her family has a history of diabetes. "So many of the kids don't get checked," she said. "If they come down with a health problem, they won't do so well in school."
The program recommends 60 minutes of activity every day for young people, whether it's basketball, bicycling, baseball or softball, skating, soccer, jump rope, dancing or swimming. Television and computer games should be limited to no more than two hours a day.
Eating smart can also prevent diabetes. That means more whole-grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, beans, lean meats and fish and low-fat dairy products. Children should cut back on chips and sweetened cereals, burgers and fries, candy, cookies and soft drinks.
Children should be screened regularly for diabetes if they are overweight, have signs of insulin resistance such as high cholesterol or acanthosis nigricans and have a family history of diabetes.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.