Hong Kong diabetes patients as young as 3, while one fifth under 40
Alarm as study finds diabetes is increasingly common in the young - who are less likely to realise they are affected, and more likely to die
One in five Hong Kong diabetics is under the age of 40 - and the number is expected to double by 2030.
A Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) study has found that diabetes is being diagnosed in Hongkongers at a younger age, with the median age now 50, down from 57 in 1990. The youngest person with diabetes in the study was aged just three.
The study showed that the disease - previously linked to obesity and middle-aged people over 40 - was now common among younger people. Dr Andrea Luk On-yan, of CUHK's department of medicine and therapeutics, described the result as "alarming".
She said that young patients were at a higher risk of developing fatal complications.
"More complications arising from the illness are expected as the patients have the disease a decade earlier," Luk said.
The university's Institute of Diabetes and Obesity analysed data on 10,129 patients at the Prince of Wales Hospital. In each case diabetes had been diagnosed between 1995 and 2009.
The study found that diabetes had been diagnosed in 20 per cent of the patients before they turned 40.
Thirty per cent of these early onset patients were considered to be slim, while 60 per cent had a family history of diabetes.
Luk said that people who developed diabetes before the age of 40 had a 35 per cent greater risk of developing kidney disease and a 48 per cent greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
CUHK's Professor Juliana Chan Chung-ngor said: "This study shows that diabetes requires more attention. All people including the young and old, thin and obese, should know the risk of having diabetes."
The government warned last year that one in 10 Hongkongers - about 700,000 people - had type 2 diabetes. That is slightly lower than the 12.7 per cent prevalence rate in Singapore, but higher than Japan's 7.3 rate and Taiwan's rate of 6.7, according to the International Diabetes Federation.
"A family history of diabetes and personal lifestyle are playing an increasingly significant role in the disease, especially in the early onset cases," said Luk.
Luk said that if a person's mother or father had diabetes, the risk of contracting the disease tripled. If both parents had diabetes, the risk was six times greater.
She said rapid lifestyle changes, uncontrolled diet and lack of physical exercise all accounted for the rise.
Since diabetes often had no obvious symptoms, many young and slim patients went years without realising their condition.
Chan said this could mean that sufferers missed the "golden period" for treatment - the first five years - when the risk of complications such as blindness and kidney failure could be reduced.
She urged the public to get checked regularly. Anyone with a family history of the condition, even those under 30, should go for a test sooner rather than later.
Betty Yeung, 30, who has lived with diabetes since she was 14, believes her condition is linked to family history. Her brother was also an early onset patient who had suffered complications such as liver disease, heart disease and eye problems. He died around the age of 30.
Yeung said due to his condition, she was prompted to undergo screening when she was young and was able to gain early control of the disease.