Loneliness can double risk for developing Type 2 diabetes

BERGEN, Norway — Loneliness can double the risk of developing diabetes, a new study explains. Scientists in Norway say that being lonely creates short-term and even long-lasting distress, which sometimes can activate the body’s physiological stress response.

They believe the reaction plays a “key role” in the development of Type 2 diabetes (T2D). The body’s stress response elevates levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, leading to temporary insulin resistance. By resisting insulin, the body’s blood sugar levels increase, which is what causes diabetes onset.

Previous studies have also found an association between loneliness and unhealthy eating, as those who are lonely are more likely to drink sugary beverages and eat foods rich in sugar and fat, as they have fewer social ties and minimal positive influences.

As a result, blood sugar levels rise and consequently leads to Type 2 diabetes. The researchers from Western Norway University of Applied Science used data from the HUNT study to reach these findings. This is a collaboration between the HUNT Research Center, Trøndelag County Council, the Central Norway Regional Health Authority, and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

The data contains responses to health questionnaires, medical examinations, and blood samples of more than 230,000 people. Researchers collected the data four times between 1984 and 2019. Study authors took the information from 24,024 people who participated in the tests between 1995 and 1997. They chose the people who did not already have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes and whose blood data was available.

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To gauge loneliness, the team asked participants whether they had felt lonely over the previous two weeks. The response options were “no,” “a little,” “a good amount,” and “very much.”

After adjusting for age, sex, and education level, they found that participants who responded “very much” were twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than those who did not feel lonely. Out of the 24,024 people, 13 percent said they had feelings of loneliness. In total, 1,179 participants went on to develop type 2 diabetes between 1995 and 2019.

The study, published in the journal Diabetologia, found that 59 percent of these people were men. They also had a higher average age than those who did not develop the condition. The average age of men was 48 and the average age of women was 43.

Those who developed Type 2 diabetes were also more likely to be married, with 73 percent of the men being married and 68 percent of women having a spouse. Finally, those who developed the condition were more likely to have a low level of education, with 35 percent of men and 23 percent of women with Type 2 diabetes having a low level of schooling.

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The study also looked at whether depression and insomnia play a role in the development of Type 2 diabetes. The team found that the relationship between loneliness and Type 2 diabetes wasn’t altered by either of these things.

The researchers advise that loneliness should be a part of clinical screening guidelines relating to diabetes. “It is important that healthcare providers are open to dialogue about an individual’s concerns during clinical consultations, including with regard to loneliness and social interaction,” study authors write in a media release.“Questions to be answered are the extent to which loneliness leads to the activation of stress responses, the extent to which loneliness affects health-related behavior and, importantly, how these two pathways interact in terms of contributing to an increased risk of T2D.”

The researchers note that social support, influence, and engagement, such as advice and support from friends, may lead to more healthy behaviors and lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.

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