Diabetes And Loneliness: How The Disease Isolates Us When We Need Support The Most

Why the connection?

This study highlights some disturbing correlations but leaves us in a chicken-and-egg situation when trying to identify the cause of the problem. Are people with type 2 diabetes truly subject to shrinking social support? If so, is it because they feel guilty about their diagnosis or feel judged by their friends? Perhaps it’s more practical—the medical issues associated with type 2 may make it difficult to meet up with friends, and diabetes management may leave a person with less time for socializing.

Or is it true that loneliness and isolation lead to diabetes? Loneliness is known to be a contributing health factor in a host of mental and physical illnesses, and we know that mental and physical health are linked. And practically speaking, a person who has a large and diverse social network may naturally get more physical activity and be more motivated to take care of themselves.

Photo: AdobeStock/ikostudio
Photo: AdobeStock/ikostudio

Diabetes Puts a Strain on Mental Health

A study based on data gathered between 2006 and 2009 concluded that a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes was associated with worsening mental health, poorer quality of life, and reduced social contacts. Since this study looked specifically at changes in a person’s life following a type 2 diagnosis, it’s a little easier to draw conclusions about cause and effect. The study demonstrated that participants who received a type 2 diagnosis not only spent less time with friends and family after their diagnosis, but they also had decreased telephone contacts and participated less in social clubs or religious activities.

The study’s authors thought that the necessary life changes that come with a type 2 diagnosis might become less burdensome over time, but people would likely need strong social and financial support systems around them in order for that to be true. But that’s challenging because a diagnosis tends to reduce social contact, and type 2 diabetes is overrepresented among those in poverty.

Photo: AdobeStock/Bits and Splits
Photo: AdobeStock/Bits and Splits

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A person’s ability to rely on a social support network also contributes to how well they are able to adhere to self-care and diabetes management plans, which has a direct impact on their physical health. The study concluded that “declining quality of life and increasing social isolation among people who are recently diagnosed with T2DM are scenarios that ought to be monitored closely… if devastating and hugely expensive, but preventable comorbidities and complications are to be successfully avoided.”

The reality is that both studies, and other similar studies, reveal pieces of a hard truth: diabetes is isolating, and isolation can lead to mental and physical health problems. And loneliness isn’t rare—a 2010 AARP survey found that 1 in 3 adults over 45 were often lonely.

Photo: AdobeStock/dundanim
Photo: AdobeStock/dundanim

How Do We Fight Loneliness?

Dr. John Cacioppo, PhD and professor at the University of Chicago, says that loneliness comes from a lack of intimacy with other humans. When we feel left out or isolated, our bodies react similarly to how they react to stress or physical pain. Loneliness is our body and mind’s way of telling us that we need more caring attention.

Creating social interaction with people we care about is the key to fighting loneliness. We must seek meaningful friendships that include face-to-face interactions. Of course, creating more social connection is easier said that done. Dr. Gary McClaine, PhD and writer for Diabetic Connect, recommends making a list of people you count on and making a concentrated effort to stay in touch. Reach out when you need support, and give support to others when they need it.

Photo: AdobeStock/ashtproductions
Photo: AdobeStock/ashtproductions

It’s important to understand how social isolation affects us and how a diabetes diagnosis can exacerbate that isolation so that we can take steps to combat it. Knowing our challenges is the first step to overcoming them. But in the interest of fairness, we should mention that sometimes simply knowing your challenges is not enough. Diabetes and isolation can also lead to depression, and depression should be taken seriously. Reach out to your doctor and those around you to let them know you need help if you are experiencing depression. If you know someone who may be lonely or depressed, reach out to them to see how you can offer support.

We at the Diabetes Site hope that everyone with diabetes finds a social support group to rely on. Please feel free to comment if you have strategies to share about staying connected and encouraged. Stay healthy, friends!

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