Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen
Additions/comments by Urologist Steven N. Gange, MD
The International Diabetes Federation defines diabetes as “a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas is no longer able to make insulin, or when the body cannot make good use of the insulin it produces.” To explain further, insulin is a key hormone that allows us to use the sugars in food to produce the energy we need to function. That candy bar you just ate? While the sugar rush might seem instantaneous and miraculous, it’s really the insulin in your blood that’s converting it into energy your cells can use.
But there are two problems that can happen with insulin production. One is simply that your body doesn’t produce insulin at all. This condition is known as Type 1 diabetes. Because the lack of insulin means that the sugars you consume don’t get converted into usable energy, people with Type 1 diabetes can often experience what to most people is an alarming lack of energy. Type 1 diabetes generally has nothing to do with diet or lifestyle and can include a genetic component; if you have a parent who has Type 1 diabetes, it is more likely that you yourself will be diagnosed with it.
The other problem that can happen with insulin production is that your body simply doesn’t know what to do with all the insulin it produces. This condition is known as Type 2 diabetes. According to the IDF, this is the most common type of diabetes that exists and can account for 90% of all diagnosed diabetes cases. Unlike the first type, which is a lack of production of insulin that results in lethargy, this second type involves an increase in glucose levels, which causes an increase in insulin production, causing a never-ending cycle that can eventually exhaust your pancreas, causing it to then stop producing insulin, which in turn causes your blood sugar levels to be raised even higher.
(A third type of diabetes is known as gestational diabetes, which can happen to some women during pregnancy, but that type of diabetes is not the focus of this article.)
Type 2 Diabetes
When we think of Type 2 diabetes, what comes to mind? Most of us assume that someone who was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes has led an unhealthy lifestyle, including gaining excessive amounts of weight and consuming unreasonable amounts of sugary junk. These people would then need to go through the treatment options that include pricking your finger to check your blood sugar levels and injecting insulin based on the results.
But what if that wasn’t the only cause for getting diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes? A recent study done in Sweden found that boys who started puberty on the earlier end of the range were found to have a much higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes when they reached adulthood–more so than boys who bloomed later in their teens. What made this revelation possible was that the authors of the study–a group of professors at the University of Gothenburg in Gothenburg, Sweden–were given access to the growth records of the study participants, approximately 30,000 males who were products of the baby boom, that were followed for three decades.
Why does Growth Matter?
Unlike girls, for whom entrance to puberty is measured by when they begin to menstruate, it has been much harder for doctors to nail down exactly when boys enter puberty. With access to participants’ growth charts, the researchers were able to document when the boys’ growth spurts happened, which was generally about two years after puberty hit.
With this information, the researchers were able to make the correlation between diabetes and the onset of puberty. The boys who hit their growth spurts in the youngest age ranges (that is, around or below 13 years old) were about two times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes when they were around fifty or younger. Those who had their growth spurts around the older ages (about 15 years) were much less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes. In addition to having access to the participants’ growth records, the researchers also had access to the participants’ childhood BMI readings. With this information, they were able to disprove the correlation specifically between childhood weight and risk factors in developing Type 2 diabetes. Those men who developed Type 2 diabetes had a whole range of weights during childhood.
While the researchers aren’t certain about the “why” aspect of this study, Dr Jenny Kindblom, MD, PhD, speculates that one of the reasons for the correlation between early puberty and onset of Type 2 diabetes could be because early puberty can lead to more visceral fat when you reach adulthood. This particular fat is the type that congregates around your abdomen. Excess stomach fat has for a long time been linked to other risk factors including high blood pressure.
Despite this new risk factor coming to light, it is still a good idea to lead a healthy lifestyle that can help prevent the onset of diabetes in the first place. As always, talk to your doctor before attempting to make any changes to make sure that those changes are, in fact, safe and healthy for you.