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

Having diabetes can make you feel isolated. Friends may not understand your diagnosis, and they may even blame you for it. Social eating can become a source of stress, and the desire to avoid unwanted questions, hassle, and potential judgment may lead you to simply avoid people altogether.

In addition to working to manage blood sugar day and night, people with diabetes must work harder to stay connected with their social network. A study published in 2017 found a strong correlation between being isolated and being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. That’s disturbing because someone who receives a diabetes diagnosis will likely need their social network more than ever.

Photo: AdobeStock/Johan Larson
Photo: AdobeStock/Johan Larson

Correlation between social isolation and type 2 diabetes

The study, published in BMC Public Health, questioned 2,861 people who either had pre-existing diabetes, were recently diagnosed with diabetes, were pre-diabetic, or who had a normal response to glucose. Each participant was given a name-generating questionnaire that asked about the type and frequency of social contacts they had. The idea was that participants would write down the names of people they knew in different social capacities.

The study found that the more social contacts a person had, the less likely they were to have diabetes. In fact, the odds of having a type 2 diagnosis rose by 12% for every one fewer connections a participant reported in their network. Risk also increased if more of a person’s support group lived mostly inside their own household or within walking distance from their home.

Photo: AdobeStock/Jacob Lund
Photo: AdobeStock/Jacob Lund

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In women specifically, a general lack of participation in a social network resulted in a whopping 112% increase in their likelihood of having diabetes. And these findings were adjusted to account for age, body mass index, education, smoking status, and other type 2 risk factors.

It’s especially interesting that the study found a correlation between the geographic size of a person’s social network and the likelihood of them having diabetes. Men who had larger percentages of their network made up of household members were more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, and living alone increased a man’s odds of having type 2. There was no correlation found between women living alone and having diabetes, but women with diabetes were more likely to have fewer friends living outside of walking distance. This was attributed to those with type 2 having smaller social networks in general—a smaller network means that those close by comprise a greater percentage.

The study consistently found that people with smaller social networks, men or women, were more likely to have diabetes than those with larger groups of friends.

Photo: AdobeStock/Andy Dean
Photo: AdobeStock/Andy Dean

Limitations of the Study

The study’s authors freely admit that a major limitation of their study is that the data cannot prove a certain direction of cause and effect, only strong correlation. That makes sense as the results don’t paint a clear picture of whether isolation contributes to diabetes or if diabetes contributes to isolation. Still, the study concluded that examining a person’s social network may be a promising prevention strategy for type 2, and that men who live alone should be seen as high risk for type 2.

“NEXT” for the connection between diabetes and isolation

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