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Loneliness increases your risk of Type 2 diabetes, study suggests

People who have fewer social connections are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

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That’s according to researchers at Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands, who published their findings this week in the journal BMC Public Health, revealing that socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent Type 2 diabetes.

"Most diabetes prevention efforts focus on becoming more physically active or modifying one's diet, which are hard to achieve," Miranda Schram, an epidemiologist at Maastricht University and study co-author, told PBS NewsHour.

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"So we wanted to look for effective, alternative strategies that can be used for intervention,” she said.

Maastricht University has an ongoing study searching for genetic and environmental risk factors connected to Type 2 diabetes. This specific part of the study looked at a large-scale population of 40 to 75 year old individuals living in southern Netherlands.

The researchers analyzed 2,861 participants, looking specifically at the disease's connection to isolation. While the majority of the sample population did not have the disease, 43 percent had pre-diabetes, a recent diagnosis or existing Type 2 diabetes.

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After collecting data about the participants’ social networks via questionnaires as well as observing their social behavior, the researchers found that isolated women and men had significantly higher chances of having Type 2 diabetes compared to those with larger social networks.

Lonely women had a 112 percent higher chance, while men’s odds were 42 percent higher. Furthermore, men who lived alone had a 94 percent higher chance of having the disease.

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"Medical professionals may need to start recognizing and focusing on single, socially isolated men as the most high-risk group," Schram said.

The research also revealed an individual's network size and proximity to friends and family directly correlated to their chance of having the disease. This is especially true for women.

"As our numbers show, the size of the group and type of relationship makes a big difference for women," Stephanie Brinkhues, a public health researcher at Maastricht University and lead author of the study said. "And keeping those friends close by is also a great benefit."

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"New lifestyle interventions should be combined with stimulating participants to become member of a club (e.g. volunteer organization, sports club, discussion group), as we have shown that a lack of participation in social activities was associated with pre-diabetes and previously diagnosed T2DM," Brinkues also wrote in a blog post accompanying the study. "Social network size and social participation may be used as a risk indicator in diabetes prevention strategies."

Although the study showed solid correlation between isolation and Type 2 diabetes, experts hope the university researchers further explore the subject.

"I hope to see the Maastricht group broaden this study to other nations and look at race, more age ranges, stress levels, sleep patterns, and the usual exercise and diet," Gail Musen, who didn't participate in the study but is an expert on diabetes and behavioral cognitive science, told PBS NewsHour.

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The new research is not the first to point to the negative health impact of loneliness. Scientists have previously linked isolation to hypertension, an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease and premature death in general.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy also wrote earlier this year that "loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity."

Read the full study at bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com.

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