Diabetes Rates Rise for Young Adults


By Albert Vargas

Diabetes is one of the leading causes of death in New York City, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

A chronic disease,  type 2 diabetes is the most common. It affects 987,000 New Yorkers, says the DOHMH and 19 percent don’t even know they have it. The fat, liver, and muscle cells of those with type 2 diabetes don’t respond to insulin, which helps regulate glucose in the blood. The body normally uses insulin to turn glucose (Greek for sweet) into energy. At one time, type 2 was said to be “adult-onset” diabetes, but it is now occurring in younger populations. The cause is not known but it is believed to be influenced by lifestyle: poor diet, lack of exercise, and obesity.

In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas of those with the disease does not produce insulin and thus the glucose remains in the blood, raising sugar levels. Also known as juvenile diabetes, it usually develops in younger people but can hit at any age.

Increasing rates of obesity in the young is leading to more type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes used to be more prevalent in children and teens, with an overall prevalence of 154 cases per 100,000 children. However, now type 2 diabetes is 182 cases per 100,000 children.

Forty percent of NYC elementary school children are overweight, which puts them at risk for diabetes, according to the DOHMH. In its guide to children with diabetes, the DOHMH says, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has increased 33 percent in the past 15 years, “mirroring the increase in weight and obesity.”

Lifestyle choices are key to avoiding and managing type 2 diabetes. For some young people in New York City, this can be challenging. The high cost of living and hectic work schedules often leave little time to eat healthily and exercise.

“I wake up at 6 am to go to college, follow by work at 4 pm and then home by midnight,” said Joshua Robinson, 23, who suffers from type 2 diabetes. Robinson immigrated from Ecuador six years ago to pursue the American dream.

New Yorkers spend much of their time working to cover expenses that are 40 percent higher than the national average. According to a March 2019 report from Apartment List by Nick Wallace, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,499 in New York City. Studio and one-bedroom apartments come in at $1,889 and $2,098 a month. That doesn’t include other expenses such as lights, cable, phone, and personal expenses.

Robinson, 23, started to feel dizziness and itchiness in August 2019. When he went to the doctor, he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. “I have lost 10 pounds since I noticed I have type 2 diabetes,” said Robinson, who now has to make certain choices when he eats. Juana Velazquez, 25, was diagnosed with diabetes in 2018, and she worries about managing it. “Sometimes, I do not have money to eat healthier,” Velazquez said. “Not everyone can buy healthy food.”


Robinson and Velazquez say they often prioritize paying their bills over taking care of their health. Robinson is a social worker major at La Guardia Community College and spends most of his time at college or work. “I work hard because New York is an expensive city, and I want to get a degree,” said Robinson. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

Like Robinson, many young adults in New York City go to college and work full-time.  According to a report from New Georgetown University Research, 70 percent of college students work while enrolled in college. This routine makes cooking at home more difficult. Stress and anxiety are also factors, says Dr. Domingo Santana, who works in a Bethel Medical Practice in the Bronx. “When someone faces psychological or mental stress, that can elevate glucose levels in individuals with type 2 diabetes and a majority of type 1 diabetics,” he says. “Also, glucose levels may drop in some people with type 1.”

Robinson said he used to have a lot of worries in life, which led him to have anxiety and eat junk food. “Sometimes I do not sleep well because when I get off from work, I have to do homework,” he said. “Also, a few months ago, I broke up with my girlfriend, and before that, we had a lot of issues. This brought me to drink alcohol almost every day and think about many things. That also motivated me to eat a lot, and I forgot about myself.”

Genetics can play a role experts say. Robinson’s grandmother died two years ago from a heart attack and diabetes. “My mother used to tell me that I could have diabetes like my grandmother since that can be inherited, but I never thought I could have diabetes,” he said. Robinson’s father was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes four years ago, but he took it seriously, and he kept it in check. Velazquez said her doctor told her that she could have diabetes because her father does.

According to the American Diabetes Association, the disease disproportionately impacts Latino/Hispanic and African Americans. Both groups have lower incomes in New York City, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute. In its report, “The Racial Dimension of New York’s Income Inequality,” the institute says that average and median family incomes are much higher for whites than for blacks and Latinos in New York. “The average income for white families in New York State was $122,200 during the 2014-15 period, 77 percent greater than the average family income for blacks ($69,100), and 93 percent greater than the average for Latino families ($63,500).”

Diabetes is more 70 percent more prevalent in high-poverty neighborhoods in New York City, says the DOHMH in a data brief. Fordham-Bronx Park had the highest rates with 14.6 percent, followed by East New York with 14.4 percent. Meanwhile, Upper East Side-Gramercy and Chelsea Greenwich area had the lowest with 4.4 and 4.1 percent respectively.

Velazquez, who’s Mexican, says she misses the tacos, burritos, carnitas, and all the delicious traditional food the doctor prohibited her from eating. “I felt unfortunate because I used to eat everything, and after that, I’ve been following a strict diet,” said Velazquez. “I used to cook a lot for my family and me, but my doctor told me that those food have a lot of calories.”


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