While type 1 diabetes is a lifelong auto-immune disease that usually develops in childhood, type 2 diabetes refers to the body's increasing resistance to insulin, which develops at any age. While we are aware of various genetic and lifestyle factors that can raise the risk of its onset, the exact mechanisms are still unknown.
Previous studies have explored the links between social structures and type 2 diabetes, looking for clues in factors such as stress and emotional support that could help us improve lifestyle decisions.
While it seems fairly obvious that there is some kind of link, and intervention can be of great benefit, there are still some question marks over which social elements play a crucial role in the relationship.
Researchers at Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands made use of an existing study's database of individuals suffering from type 2 diabetes to try and find out exactly what features of isolation might be linked with the condition.
Overall, they analyzed 2,861 subjects aged between 40 and 75, about a third of which were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes either previously or as part of the study. Characteristics of their social outings were collected using a questionnaire, giving researchers a range of details on their friend network size, frequency of contact, and how far away they lived.
They found out that having a smaller network of friends was highly associated with a new or previous diagnosis of type 2 diabetes among men and women. It was also found that the proximity of family, friends, and acquaintances made a difference for women - having people nearby to hang out with meant they were less likely to contract type 2 diabetes. For men, living alone seemed to make a difference - those who had housemates were less likely to contract the disease.
Stephanie Brinkhues, the study's lead author, says that "our findings support the idea that resolving social isolation may help prevent the development of type 2 diabetes."
So what does this all mean? Diabetes isn't the only long-term disorder connected to social isolation, and it's highly unlikely that such health conditions are themselves responsible for the isolation.
The underlying reasons behind the link are unclear, but the authors believe that the implications are still clear.
Miranda Schram, a Maastricht University diabetes researcher, says that "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."
So this Christmas, reach out to a lonely neighbor. Not only is it a nice gesture, but it could also help save their health.