Cases of type 2 diabetes saw a sharp 77% increase among youth during the first year of the pandemic. Researchers say some "environmental factors" may have contributed to the rise.

The incidence of "youth onset" type 2 diabetes has been rising "worldwide," the researchers wrote in a paper, published in The Journal of Pediatrics. Previous data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saw a 4.8% increase in new cases of type 2 diabetes in youths per year from 2002 to 2015.

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs typically in adults, even though it is also found among younger people, thanks to increasing cases of obesity, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But diabetes rates tend to "rise and fall over time," Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine noted in a news release. For their study, the researchers looked at the rates of new type 2 diabetes cases among young people, aged eight to 21 years, in the first year of the pandemic (until Feb. 28, 2021) and also two years before that.

Indeed, they found a "substantial rise" in youth onset type 2 diabetes, with new cases increasing by a whopping 77.2% in the first year of the pandemic compared to the two years prior to it.

The disparities among racial and ethnic groups, which has been observed in previous years, also "deepened." While cases decreased among white youths, the number of diagnoses doubled among Black youths and nearly doubled among Hispanic youths in the first year of the pandemic compared to the previous two years.

The team also found other rather "unusual" results. For instance, more boys were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in the first year of the pandemic, when "historically," more girls are diagnosed with the disease than boys.

Further, compared to pre-pandemic years when more patients were typically diagnosed with the disease as outpatients, during the pandemic year, more of them were diagnosed while being inpatients, suggesting "greater severity."

"Inpatient admission generally suggests a more severe presentation at diagnosis," researchers explained.

"Likelihood of presenting with metabolic decompensation and severe diabetic ketoacidosis also increased significantly during the pandemic," the researchers wrote.

According to the researchers, "environmental factors" could help explain the trend. Because of the pandemic, school and sports activities were shut and the kids had to stay more at home.

"During the COVID-19 lockdown, children were removed from normal day-to-day routines like going to school, playing sports and other hobbies," study co-first author Sheela N. Magge, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in the news release. "Not only were they less physically active, they were confined to their homes and spent a lot more time watching TV, playing video games, or with other electronic devices."

Previously, the CDC noted how kids tended to snack more while watching TV than while doing other activities.

The researchers also discussed other possible factors behind the increase, such as pediatric weight gain and the psychosocial stress that the youths experienced, which may have contributed to the "pathophysiology of diabetes." They also cited a previous study that noted an increase in diabetes incidences among youths after a COVID-19 infection. But it is not clear whether the infection itself has caused the increase.

"Whether the increase was caused by COVID-19 infection, or just associated with environmental changes and stressors during the pandemic is unclear," they wrote.

More studies will be needed to see if the trend will "persist over time" and to look at the possible underlying causes. Researchers are urging pediatricians and parents to be more "vigilant."

"We need to make sure we are identifying patients early so we can intervene with treatment and prevent complications," said study co-first author Risa Wolf, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"Now is the time to focus on exercising and a healthy diet for your kids," Magge added.