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Thirty-six percent of Americans report experiencing this risk factor.
Right now, over 37 million Americans—over 11 percent of the U.S. population—are living with diabetes. Yet this startling number represents just a fraction of the large swath of individuals who are at risk of developing the condition: An additional 96 million Americans have pre-diabetes, the precursor to Type 2 diabetes.
Though many of the risk factors that can lead to Type 2 diabetes are well known, researchers are still identifying characteristics that can spike your odds of a problem. In fact, a new study has found one factor which could double your risk—and they say it has to do with a particular feeling many of us regularly experience. Read on to learn whether you’re at increased risk, and why researchers believe the association exists.
READ THIS NEXT: Eating This Type of Cereal for Breakfast Can Slash Diabetes Risk, Experts Say.
Several factors can put you at high risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some of those are things you cannot change, such as having a history (or a family history) of pre-diabetes or gestational diabetes, being 45 years or older, or being of African-American, Hispanic or Latino, or American Indian descent.
Other risk factors, like being overweight, eating an unhealthy diet, or being physically active less than three times a week, are within your control. Focusing on changing these modifiable risk factors can help you avoid developing Type 2 diabetes, even if you have non-modifiable risk factors as well.
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According to a new study, another factor is associated with a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes: feeling lonely. In fact, the study, published in Diabetologia, the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes [EASD], concluded that individuals who felt loneliest had a two-fold higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes compared with those who did not report feeling lonely.
In order to explore the possible connection between feelings of loneliness and diabetes risk, the study authors analyzed data collected through a set of four numbered questionnaires known as the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study (HUNT) surveys. In particular, they focused on one question from the HUNT2 survey, which was issued between 1995 and 1997: “In the last two weeks, have you felt lonely?” Participants could select from the responses: “no,” “a little,” “a good amount,” and “very much.”
They then compared the answers from the HUNT2 survey to data gathered during the HUNT4 survey, issued between 2017 and 2019. Study subjects who responded to this question with the answer “very much” in the HUNT2 survey were twice as likely to report having type 2 diabetes in the HUNT4 survey.
Researchers offered several theories as to how loneliness might lead to increased incidence of Type 2 diabetes. One is that loneliness could activate a stress response that produces an excess of cortisol. “This, in turn, may lead to increased food intake, in particular the intake of carbohydrates, and to increased insulin resistance,” the study authors wrote. “These processes play an important role in supplying the activated, metabolically demanding brain with sufficient glucose,” they added.
Alternatively, it is possible that loneliness could spike diabetes risk by interfering with our mood and sleep, says Roger E. Henriksen, lead study author and associate professor at the Institute of Nursing at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences. “Previous research has shown us that loneliness can lead to depression,” he explained. “Loneliness can also lead to bad sleep. And we also know that bad sleep and depression can lead to Type 2 diabetes.”
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Speaking with Medical News Today, Andrea Paul, MD, a physician and a medical advisor for Illuminate Labs, suggested an alternative hypothesis—one that assumes there is no causal connection between loneliness and diabetes.
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“It’s more likely, in my opinion, that people who are extremely lonely also overlap with people [who] don’t focus as much on health,” she told the outlet. “It’s uncommon to come across someone who’s very lonely but also focused on nutrition, exercise, and wellness. While loneliness may directly cause diabetes by activation of stress hormones, this study doesn’t prove so.”
If you do feel lonely often, you may take some comfort in knowing you’re not actually alone. According to a 2021 report from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, roughly 36 percent of Americans report feeling “serious loneliness,” defined as feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the four weeks prior to the survey. Working toward more social connectivity with the help of a therapist or counselor could have a positive impact on both your mental and physical health, including—but not limited to—your diabetes risk.
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