LONDON — Coronavirus lockdowns around the world have put millions of people into an uncomfortable isolation. While not every person in quarantine will experience loneliness, a new study says those that do may end up with a surprising side-effect — diabetes. Researchers find loneliness can predict the onset of Type 2 diabetes. Moreover, the worse you feel, the greater your risk of having the disease.
A team at King’s College London reveals measuring feelings of loneliness can be a strong predictor of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life. Researchers examined data on more than 4,100 adults over the age of 50. The patient records spanning from 2002 to 2017 show all of the participants were free of diabetes at the study’s start. Over the course of the 12 years however, 264 now have Type 2 diabetes.
Even feeling a little lonely can make a big difference
When comparing the results to the tests each patient took to examine their feelings of loneliness, study authors find “a one point increase in the averaged loneliness score was associated with a 41% increase in the hazard of Type 2 diabetes onset.” This connection is still present even after researchers factor out the effects of smoking, drinking, weight, blood glucose levels, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
The report describes loneliness as the feeling a person has when social needs are not being met. One in five adults in the United Kingdom and one in three in the United States say they feel lonely occasionally. Loneliness is not the same thing as depression and doesn’t necessarily result from simply living alone or experiencing social isolation. Researchers add the link between diabetes and loneliness is a unique problem facing people, including those who are not depressed.
“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,” Dr. Ruth Hackett says in a university release.
How does loneliness connect to diabetes?
“I came up with the idea for the research during UK lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic as I became increasingly aware and interested in how loneliness may affect our health, especially as it is likely that many more people were experiencing this difficult emotion during this period,” Hackett adds.
The British team suggests that loneliness doesn’t just have a psychological effect, it damages us biologically too. They theorize constantly feeling lonely impacts the systems which control stress and, over time, this can increase your risk for diabetic issues.
“If the feeling of loneliness becomes chronic… then everyday 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,” Dr. Hackett explains.
The study also looks at how the mind can make these feelings worse. It finds a person’s own biases can cause someone to expect others to react negatively to them, even when people are trying to reach out supportively.
Researchers warn these findings could play a major role during the pandemic as COVID-19 patients with diabetes are at greater risk of dying. For some, life in lockdown may only compound their future health problems.
The study appears in the journal Diabetologia.