Tuesday: You probably lean on your friends in tough times. Now, new research suggests your pals might even help you prevent one very big health problem — type 2 diabetes.
In a study of nearly 3,000 middle-aged to elderly people in the Netherlands, researchers found that people who had social networks of 10 to 12 people were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people with only seven to eight close friends.
Each drop in a social network member was tied to a 5 percent to 12 percent higher risk of diabetes, the study found.
The investigators also found that men living alone were more likely to have type 2 diabetes, while living alone didn’t seem to affect a woman’s risk of having the blood sugar disease.
“A larger network size may have an important impact on an individual’s lifestyle,” said the study’s lead author, Stephanie Brinkhues. She’s a doctoral candidate at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
“A larger network also means more access to social support when it is needed, more contacts outside the house, and therefore being more socially active. The larger social network may help people to improve their lifestyle, eat more healthy and be more physically active,” she said.
Those are important steps for preventing type 2 diabetes, which is linked to sedentary behavior and being overweight.
As to why men living alone might not do as well, the study’s senior author, Miranda Schram, suggested several possibilities.
“Potentially, men living alone may not take care of themselves as much as women in this situation,” said Schram, an associate professor at Maastricht University.
“They may have more unhealthy lifestyles, for instance, eating less fresh vegetables and fruit, being less physically active and, in general, health may be less an issue for them, compared to women living alone,” she added.
Schram’s advice to anyone at high risk of type 2 diabetes? Consider making new friends, volunteering or joining special-interest groups.
Both authors noted that this study wasn’t designed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship. However, other research has also found a link between type 2 diabetes and living alone or with less social support, which suggests that these factors might contribute to type 2 diabetes, they said. But at least one doctor thinks that if isolation or social networks play some role in type 2 diabetes, it’s a small role.
Dr. Joel Zonszein is director of the Clinical Diabetes Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
“This was a very large and very impressive study, but there are still a lot of problems with the study,” he said.
One issue is with the design of the study itself. It only looks at one moment in time, and doesn’t account for changes that might have occurred in people’s lives.
Zonszein said there are so many other factors that can contribute to diabetes, it’s difficult to tease out the effect each one has, if any. The study authors did try to control for such factors, but it’s hard to account for all of them. Zonszein said more research is needed to see if these findings can be replicated.
In the meantime, he won’t be recommending extra social gatherings to his patients. “I don’t think having more friends or being less isolated will slow down the progression of diabetes,” he concluded.
However, the study authors stressed that people should be encouraged to expand their social network. Doing so could have additional health benefits, they said.
Study participants ranged in age from 40 to 75, with an average age of 60. About half were female, and 29 percent had type 2 diabetes.
The study was published online Dec. 18 in BMC Public Health.