Can loneliness increase risk for type 2 diabetes?

Researchers from Norway have examined data over 20 years to find out

By Sarah Manallack

We can feel lonely when our social relationships do not match what we want in terms of quantity and quality. These feelings can cause emotional distress.

Loneliness and distress activate our body’s stress response. This is a system known as the HPA axis. Activating the HPA axis increases cortisol, which is a stress hormone. It also affects the body’s release of glucose and response to insulin. Feeling lonely can also increase our appetite, which can increase weight and blood glucose levels.

Research shows that risk of type 2 diabetes is increased by distress, sleep problems, and depressive symptoms. In addition, feeling lonely is associated with both depressive symptoms and sleep problems. So, it is possible that there is a connection, but there is limited research.

The HUNT Study was a large project which measured the health of participants in Norway from 1984 to 2019. Researchers from Western Norway University analysed the HUNT data. They explored whether feeling lonely increased a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes over 20 years. They used a a sub-set of data from 24,024 participants from 1995 to 2019.

Key findings:

      • Over 20 years, 4.9% of participants developed type 2 diabetes and 12.6% reported loneliness
      • Those who felt most lonely were twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes, compared with those who did not
      • Neither depressive symptoms nor insomnia affected this link
      • However, difficulty staying asleep had a weak effect

Strengths of the study included the large sample size and the use of an objective HbA1c measure (average blood glucose levels). Limitations included the absence of data on the medications people were taking.

The researchers recommend including loneliness in clinical guidelines about type 2 diabetes. They highlight the need for further research into loneliness and risk of type 2 diabetes. They also recommend research into interventions to reduce loneliness.

If this topic interests you, we also have other blogs on mental health and type 2 diabetes.


Reference: Henricksen, RE, Nilsen, RM, & Strandberg, RB. Loneliness increases the risk of type 2 diabetes: a 20 year follow-up – results from the HUNT study. Diabetologia, 2022.

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