Previous studies evaluating the impact of depression on cardiovascular (CV) outcomes have found reduced survival rates when compared to peers without depression facing similar CV medical challenges. Although these increased risks are also notable even after adjusting for the nonmodifiable demographic risks of age and sex, clinicians understand that lifestyle modification such as improved diet and increased amounts of exercise can improve the overall medical condition of any patient.  

A new study published December 19, 2017, suggests that the mental health impact of loneliness may be associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes (T2DM). Although the reason for this link is not completely understood, the stress due to reduced emotional support appears to significantly and negatively impact lifestyle choices and healthcare-related decision making.

Brinkhues et al evaluated a study population of 2,861 individuals comprised of a sample with a roughly equal percentage of men and women who were between age 40 and 75 years. Participants were asked to complete a survey to determine the type of social network that each person identified with.  The survey questions included, but were not limited to, the size of the network, how frequent the contact associated with that group, the type relationship (i.e., percentage of family and friends), and the distance he or she lived from the group. Although roughly 30% of the group had either been diagnosed with T2DM prior to the study, or were later diagnosed during the study, the researchers discovered that an association with a smaller network was significantly correlated with a diagnosis of T2DM.  While this difference was seen in both men and women, there were differences that were detected based on the sex of the participant. Men who lived alone and women who were lived far away from their identified social network were also more likely to be diagnosed with T2DM.

In addition to not understanding the reason for the association of social isolation and increased risk of diabetes, there is also uncertainty about how to use this information to effect meaningful health changes. Miranda Schram, one of the researchers involved in this study, recommends that “High risk groups for type 2 diabetes should broaden their network and should be encouraged to make new friends, as well as become members of a club, such as a volunteer organization, sports club, or discussion group.”

The authors conclude that symptoms of altered blood glucose, such as malaise and fatigue, may further alienate individuals from engaging with their social network and preclude them from participating in social activities. For this reason, these study findings may be limited due to study design and an inability to rule out confounding effects such as these. Further studies will be required to solidify our understanding about this very intriguing association.