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Keys to Fighting Loneliness

Loneliness is a rising problem that comes with some surprising health consequences

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There’s a health problem hitting America hard, one that’s less well known than heart disease and less visible than the flu: loneliness. According to a national survey of more than 20,000 people published in 2018 by the health insurer Cigna, nearly half of Americans reported feeling lonely or left out at least sometimes; 1 in 4 said they rarely, if ever, feel understood by others.

The issue affects all ages. Older people face unique risks for loneliness, including less physical mobility, a lack of workplace colleagues, and a smaller peer group. But the Cigna study surprisingly found that adults ages 18 to 37 were even more likely to say they felt lonely.

Loneliness may not seem like a big deal—until you realize just how bad it is for your overall health. Not only do chronically lonely people have a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke, but a review of research published in 2015 in Perspectives on Psychological Science suggests they’re at risk of dying early, too. Loneliness is also associated with a 40 percent increased risk for dementia, according to a study of more than 12,000 people published in 2018 in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. The health effects rival those of a 15-cigarettes-a-day smoking habit.  

The Diabetes Connection

Everyone feels disconnected from time to time. But chronic loneliness—feeling isolated and lacking meaningful relationships for a long period of time—is altogether different. 

It’s not that spending time alone is harmful; you might actually enjoy solitude. It’s more about feeling lonely when surrounded by people you’re not relating to. “Loneliness is the discrepancy between one’s desire for social connection and their level of it,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. That’s why someone with a small group of friends may be perfectly happy, while a person who has a wide social network may feel alone in the crowd.

Diabetes can heighten this effect. If you have dozens of social connections but don’t know anyone else with diabetes, you may feel isolated in your diagnosis. “One of the biggest complaints my clients have is that no one understands them,” says Eliot LeBow, LCSW, CDE, a psychotherapist and certified diabetes educator in New York City. “If you don’t live with diabetes, you don’t really understand the experience of it.”

Take, for example, Jessica Lynn-Lato. At age 48, she’s lived with type 1 diabetes for 20 years. “Diabetes consumes every waking moment,” she says. “You’re thinking about it, adjusting insulin doses, and wondering if what you’re feeling is the result of high or low blood sugar. People without diabetes don’t understand how stress, exercise, and everything you do every day affect your treatment decisions.”

Science supports the link between diabetes and loneliness. A study of 325 people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes published in 2018 in The Journal of International Medical Research found that people on insulin therapy and those with foot ulcers were at higher risk of feeling lonely.

Chronic loneliness can make diabetes management tougher, too. In that same study, participants experiencing loneliness struggled with taking medications as prescribed and adopting a healthier eating plan.

And a lack of human contact or connection can lead to physical symptoms of stress, including increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and chronic inflammation, says Holt-Lunstad. But because loneliness itself carries stigma, she says, people may not be able to readily identify or label the feeling—or admit it to themselves or others.

After all, social media is rife with pictures of seemingly happy people celebrating with friends and family and enjoying fulfilling activities, which can make anyone feel like they’re missing out. In a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association, more than two-thirds of adults said social media use is related to feelings of isolation. There are ways to forge new connections with others, however, and join the flow.

Exercise With Friends

People with diabetes who exercise are less likely to feel lonely, according to a study published in The Journal of International Medical Research. Part of the reason may be that being more active is often related to being more social. Health and social activity are related in another way: A Dutch study of about 2,800 people found that having a smaller social network was associated with a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. Researchers say the reason may be that a wider net of acquaintances offers more opportunity for physical activity. Joining a sports league is a great way to see friends regularly and talk about a shared interest as well as enjoy some physical activity, LeBow says.

Attend a Support Group Meeting 

“Connection is a huge part of a support group,” says Lynn-Lato, who founded a group in her hometown. “Members understand better than anyone else your daily life with diabetes and its struggles and successes.” Many medical centers offer support groups, so ask your health care provider for some recommendations.

Volunteer

Research suggests a strong association between volunteering and feeling less lonely. In a study published in 2017 in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, volunteering for at least two hours a week significantly eased loneliness in women who had recently lost their spouse. Besides the obvious benefits of increasing social engagement, volunteering may provide a sense of meaning and purpose, Holt-Lunstad says. Look for ways to mix it up. Are you a book lover? Consider volunteering at your local library. Enjoy music? Usher performances for a local arts organization. Have a skill to share? Teach a continuing education class at a local high school.

Join the Diabetes Online Community

People who are highly engaged with online diabetes communities report better health and are better able to manage blood glucose levels, suggests a study published in 2018 in JMIR Diabetes. The American Diabetes Association offers moderated online communities at community.diabetes.org. Facebook has dozens of interest groups where people share stories, tips, and news about the latest diabetes treatments.

Melissa McCartney of Charlotte, North Carolina, spent her years as a teen with type 1 diabetes feeling isolated. As an adult, she tapped into a group of mothers with type 1 who helped her through her pregnancy. LeBow suggests looking for what’s known as a closed group—that is, one that’s private, not public—with a monitor who makes sure everyone is polite and on topic. Read through past comments first to see if the group is made up of mostly like-minded people.

 

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