Loneliness increases risk of type 2 diabetes

Monday, 28 September 2020

A new study published in the journal Diabetologia shows that loneliness and an absence of quality connections with people can predict the onset of type 2 diabetes.

This suggests that helping people form positive relationships could be a useful tool in prevention strategies for type 2 diabetes.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness occurs when an individual perceives that their social needs are not being met and reflects an imbalance between desired and actual social relationships.

A fifth of adults in the UK report feeling lonely sometimes. In the USA a third of adults reported feeling lonely, while in Australia a quarter of all adults reported feeling this way.

There is a growing interest in the role of loneliness in health. Previous research has associated loneliness with increased risk of death and heart disease. This is the first study to investigate the experience of loneliness with later onset of type 2 diabetes.

About the study

The study analysed data from the English Longitudinal Study Ageing on 4112 adults aged 50 years and over collected at several points in time from 2002 to 2017. At the start of data collection all participants were free of diabetes and had normal levels of blood glucose.

Loneliness and diabetes.

The study showed that over a period of 12 years 264 people developed type 2 diabetes. The level of loneliness measured at the start of data collection was a significant predictor of the onset of the condition later on in life.

This relationship remained intact when accounting for smoking, alcohol, weight, level of blood glucose, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. The association was also independent of depression, living alone and social isolation.

The study also found a clear distinction between loneliness and social isolation.

Isolation or living alone does not predict type 2 diabetes whereas loneliness, which is defined by a person’s quality of relationships, does.

Why study loneliness

Dr Ruth Hackett, from King’s College London, said “I came up with the idea for the research during UK lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic. I became increasingly aware and interested in how loneliness may affect our health, especially as it is likely that many more people were experiencing this difficult emotion during this period.”

The physical impact of loneliness

A possible biological reason behind the association between loneliness and type 2 diabetes could be the impact of constant loneliness on the biological system responsible for stress, which, over time affects the body and increases the risk for diabetes.

‘If the feeling of loneliness becomes chronic,’ explained Dr Hackett. ‘Then everyday you’re stimulating the stress system and over time that leads to wear and tear on your body and those negative changes in stress-related biology may be linked to type 2 diabetes development.’

Another explanation for the findings could be biases in our thinking that may perpetuate the association between loneliness and diabetes as when people feel lonely, they expect people will react to them negatively which makes it more difficult to form good relationships.

Need help making connections?

If you are feeling lonely and would like to talk to someone about strategies to help you feel more connected call us on 1300 342 238 to talk to our Psychologist.

We also have an online community forum where you can talk to and ask questions of others living with diabetes. To find out more about joining the Live Your Life Community email membership@diabetesnsw.com.au


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