Loneliness, the surprising factor that can influence the onset of type 2 diabetes

  • A new UK study shows a strong relationship between loneliness and late-onset type 2 diabetes
  • The study tracked participants' health for 12 years
  • According to the researchers, there may be a possible biological explanation behind the link

Loneliness has been linked to a series of serious health risks such as heart disease, but in a new study, researchers found that it can also predict the development of type 2 diabetes.

The study, which is the first to look at the link between loneliness and late-onset type 2 diabetes, was published in the journal Diabetologia (the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes [EASD]).

The researchers suggest that helping people form and experience positive relationships could be a useful tool in prevention strategies for type 2 diabetes, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, as people with diabetes are at greater risk of serious Covid-19.

Loneliness defined

Loneliness, according to the study authors, is an imbalance between desired and actual social relationships – in other words, it occurs when an individual perceives that their social needs are not being met.

Their work notes that a fifth of adults in the UK and a third of adults in the US report feeling lonely at times.

A 2017 South African study, based on the responses of over 3 600 people, found that 9.9% of respondents reported loneliness, with the prevalence being especially high among older adults.

Twelve-year follow-up reveals surprising findings

The researchers, from King’s College London analysed data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing on 4 112 adults aged 50 years and over. The data was collected between 2002 and 2017.

All study participants were free of diabetes and had normal levels of blood glucose at the start of data collection.

After a 12-year follow-up, the research team found that 264 people developed type 2 diabetes, and that their level of loneliness measured at the start of data collection was a significant predictor of the onset of type 2 diabetes later on in their lives.

Other factors, such as smoking, alcohol, and weight, were all taken into account, and the association was independent of depression, living alone and social isolation. 

Loneliness may be worse during Covid-19 lockdown

“The study shows a strong relationship between loneliness and the later onset of type 2 diabetes,” said Dr Ruth Hackett, lead author at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London in a news release by the university. She added:

“What is particularly striking is that this relationship is robust even when factors that are important in diabetes development are taken into account, such as smoking, alcohol intake and blood glucose, as well as mental health factors such as depression

“The study also demonstrates a clear distinction between loneliness and social isolation in that isolation or living alone does not predict type 2 diabetes, whereas loneliness, which is defined by a person’s quality of relationships, does.”

Hackett said that she came up with the idea for the research during the UK's Covid-19 lockdown, as she became increasingly aware of how loneliness may affect our health, “especially as it is likely that many more people were experiencing this difficult emotion during this period”.

Explaining the link

According to the study authors, there may be a biological reason behind the link between loneliness and type 2 diabetes. They explain that constant loneliness can have an impact on the body’s biological system responsible for stress, which, over time, affects the body and increases the risk for diabetes.

“'If the feeling of loneliness becomes chronic, then every day 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,” Hackett explained.

The authors wrote that the mechanisms underlying this relationship should be further investigated.

Avoiding type 2 diabetes

The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that the number of people with diabetes increased from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014, with an estimated 1.6 million deaths attributable to the disease in 2016.

Type 2 diabetes, which is what the majority of people with diabetes have, is mostly the result of excess body weight and physical inactivity, the organisation explains. It is also increasingly occurring in children.

Prevention measures for type 2 diabetes include achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight; being physically active; eating healthily; avoiding sugar and saturated fats; and avoiding tobacco use.

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