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With a little help from my friends: ending social isolation could lower diabetes risk

In a study involving 2861 participants, socially isolated individuals were found to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes more often than individuals with larger social networks. The findings are published in the open access journal BMC Public Health. Promoting social integration and participation may be a promising target in prevention strategies for type 2 diabetes, researchers at Maastricht University Medical Centre, The Netherlands suggest.

Dr. Miranda Schram, corresponding author said: “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. As men living alone seem to be at a higher risk for the development of type 2 diabetes, they should become recognized as a high risk group in health care. In addition, social network size and participation in social activities may eventually be used as indicators of diabetes risk.”

Stephanie Brinkhues, lead author of the study said: “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.”

Social participation in clubs and groups was found to be beneficial. A lack of participation in clubs or other social groups was associated with 60% higher odds of pre-diabetes and 112% higher odds of type 2 diabetes in women compared to those with normal glucose metabolism. In men, lack of social participation was associated with 42% higher odds of type 2 diabetes.

When looking at participants’ social networks, the study found that each drop in one network member was associated with 5 to 12% higher odds of newly diagnosed or previously diagnosed type 2 diabetes, compared to those with normal glucose metabolism. Each 10% drop in network members (one member based on an average network size of 10 network members) living within walking distance was associated with 9 to 21% higher odds of newly diagnosed or previously diagnosed type 2 diabetes in women. Higher percentages of household members in a social network were associated with higher odds of newly diagnosed diabetes in women and men. The researchers also found that in men, living alone was associated with 94% higher odds of type 2 diabetes.

The authors used data on 2861 participants in The Maastricht Study, an observational cohort study of men and women aged 40 to 75 years from the southern part of the Netherlands. Out of the total number of participants, 1623 (56.7%) had a normal glucose metabolism, 430 (15.0%) had pre-diabetes, 111 (3.9%) had newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes and 697 (24.4%) had existing type 2 diabetes at study entry.

The authors caution that early changes in glucose metabolism may cause non-specific complaints such as tiredness and feeling unwell, which may explain why individuals limit their social participation. The study’s cross-sectional observational design does not allow for this kind of reverse causality to be ruled out, or for conclusions about cause and effect.


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Notes to editor:

1. Research article:
Socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent type 2 diabetes mellitus - the Maastricht study
Brinkhues et al. BMC Public Health 2017
DOI: 10.1186/s12889-017-4948-6

After the embargo lifts, the article will be available at the journal website.

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

2. BMC Public Health is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on the epidemiology of disease and the understanding of all aspects of public health. The journal has a special focus on the social determinants of health, the environmental, behavioral, and occupational correlates of health and disease, and the impact of health policies, practices and interventions on the community.

3. A pioneer of open access publishing, BMC has an evolving portfolio of high quality peer-reviewed journals including broad interest titles such as BMC Biology and BMC Medicine, specialist journals such as Malaria Journal and Microbiome, and the BMC series. At BMC, research is always in progress. We are committed to continual innovation to better support the needs of our communities, ensuring the integrity of the research we publish, and championing the benefits of open research. BMC is part of Springer Nature, giving us greater opportunities to help authors connect and advance discoveries across the world.