New research is uncovering the ways in which our social ties benefit bodily health as well as mental health. Medical News Today reports that maintaining close friendships can help to keep mental decline at bay, and that exercising as part of a group confers more psychological and physical benefit than exercising alone. New research coming out of Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands goes even further by presenting evidence that social ties also help to reduce the risk for Type 2 Diabetes.
The Maasticht University study, examined the roles that psycho-social, lifestyle, and physiological factors play in type 2 diabetes, and revealed that being socially active correlates with a significantly reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. The correlation was so strong that co-author Dr. Miranda Schram says that "[h]igh-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."
She adds that "men living alone seem to be at a higher risk for the development of type 2 diabetes, [so] they should become recognized as a high-risk group in healthcare. In addition, social network size and participation in social activities may eventually be used as indicators of diabetes risk." The study's findings were published in the journal BMC Public Health in December 2017.
The researchers analyzed medical data from 2,861 adults between ages 40 and 75, with the goal of identifying the specific genetic and environmental risk factors involved in the development of type 2 diabetes. Of this study sample, 1,623 subjects did not have diabetes, 430 had pre-diabetes (meaning that their blood sugar levels were abnormal but not yet high enough to be classified as diabetes), 111 had very been recently diagnosed with diabetes, and 697 participants had a pre-existing diabetes diagnosis.
The researchers found an intriguing correlation between the participants' social lives and how likely they were to be diagnosed with diabetes, leading them to further investigate the potential relationship between socialization and the risk of developing this metabolic disease.
"We are the first to determine the association of a broad range of social network characteristics — such as social support, network size, or type of relationships — with different stages of type 2 diabetes. Our findings support the idea that resolving social isolation may help prevent the development of type 2 diabetes."
Lead study author Stephanie Brinkhues
Brinkhues’ team found that the participants who did not join in club activities or associate with any social groups were 60% more likely to have pre-diabetes. What’s more, women who did not participate in social activities were 112% more likely to have type 2 diabetes. Socially isolated men had an increased risk of 42%. These findings are hugely significant and if able to be replicated, could implicate the need for new approaches when it comes to preventative care for type 2 diabetes.
The team also found significant links between the loss of friends and social acquaintances and the likelihood of developing diabetes: the loss of each social contact was associated with 12% higher odds of newly diagnosed diabetes.
Taking an average network size of 10 people, the researchers noted that a 10% "drop in network members living within walking distance" of each other was linked to a 21% higher risk of newly diagnosed diabetes, and with a 9% higher chance of previously diagnosed diabetes in female participants. In other words, if I lost a friend who used lived within walking distance of me, my risk of developing diabetes would increase by 21%- that’s huge!
"Every additional 10% of the network that was a household member," the study authors writes, was also associated with higher odds of newly diagnosed or existing type 2 diabetes in both women and men.
Finally, men who lived alone had a 59% higher chance of pre- diabetes, an 84% higher chance of newly diagnosed diabetes, and a 94% higher chance of an existing diagnosis of the condition. No such association was noted in the case of women who lived alone.
“Our results indicate that emotional support in important decisions, and practical support with small jobs and in sickness were important characteristics that should be addressed in [type 2 diabetes] prevention strategies.”
In discussing all of these findings, researchers were careful to note that the causality may lie in either direction. It may be that people experiencing the early symptoms of an impaired glucose metabolism — including fatigue and a general sense of unwellness — may feel less motivated to go out, participate in social activities, and keep in touch with their friends and acquaintances.
"The study is cross-sectional in nature, and therefore, the possibility of reverse causality cannot be excluded," the authors caution.
So while we cannot determine causality (do those at higher risk for diabetes simply socialize less due to physiological hurdles, or does socialization have some protective effect against the disease?), we see that the correlation is strong between relationships and diabetes and it may be worth your time to invest in new or existing relationships.
Maybe you are already socially active and would like to maintain relationships, or perhaps you spend more time alone and are interested in connecting with others more, whatever the case research is telling us that our risk for diabetes is less when we are making these social connections. Socializing can affect when, what and how we eat; it can affect how often and for how long we exercise; and it can help us to feel less alone. If you know someone who may be at risk for diabetes or who is currently diagnosed, perhaps consider reaching out to them. Let’s use this information for our own good and for the health of our communities.
Many mental health problems get in the way of socializing and maintaining healthy social relationships, so addressing mental health concerns can help your physical health through improving your relationships.