Diabetes, Obesity Increasing Among Young People: Study

3 min read

March 6, 2023 – New health data suggest that young people in America will live shortened, poor-quality lives due to increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. The researchers said the ever-escalating rate of health risks in young people should be a “call-to-action” and pointed to sedentary lifestyles contributing to the problems.

While prevalence of those health issues is rising for people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, successful treatment rates remain strikingly low. Researchers also found that the early health problems are disproportionately affecting people who are Black or Hispanic.

The lack of treatment “may be because many young adults aren’t aware of their diagnosis,” researcher Rishi K. Wadhera, MD, says in a statement. “The rise in cardiovascular risk factors that we observed could result in higher lifetime rates of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure, and have major public health implications over the long-term.” 

“Our findings should be a call-to-action to intensify public health and clinical interventions focused on the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular risk factors in young adults,” says Wadhera, who is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study evaluated health data for 12,924 people living in the U.S. ages 20 to 44 years old from 2009 to March 2020. The average age was 31.8, and 50.6% of people in the study were women.

Key findings among people ages 20 to 44 showed that at least:

  • 1 in 25 people had diabetes
  • 4 in 10 people were obese
  • 1 in 10 people had high blood pressure
  • 1 in 3 people had high cholesterol

All of those health problems rose during the study period except high cholesterol, which declined from affecting 40.5% to 36.1% of people.

The researchers called attention to elevated rates of high blood pressure among young Black people, who experience the condition at twice the rate of other groups. The researchers noted that not a single decline in the rate was seen during the 10-year study period. 

To address the 19.3% rate of high blood pressure among young Black people, the authors suggested “the expansion of tailored community-based programs (eg, pharmacist-led interventions in Black barbershops) and large-scale health system initiatives that screen for and treat uncontrolled blood pressure for young Black adults, in combination with efforts to address socioeconomic factors (eg, poverty), community factors (eg, access to primary care), and environmental factors (eg, green space for regular exercise).”

Young Mexican Americans and other Hispanic young adults showed a significant increase in high blood pressure during the 10-year study period. They pointed to one cause being limited access to healthy foods resulting in eating lots of salty foods. 

“Mexican American adults also experienced a rise in diabetes, which is especially concerning because rates of undiagnosed diabetes are high in this population,” they write. “These patterns likely reflect the high and rising burden of obesity in this population, large increases in the consumption of ultra-processed foods, and socioeconomic factors, including barriers in access to insurance and healthy foods.”