Social Connections and Their Power in Diabetes Care

In the midst of a raging pandemic, there’s no time like the present to reflect on the impact of social connections on our health. Whether it’s a diabetes-related connection (like peer support) or just good old fashion family time, we benefit from spending time with others.

The importance of social connections for diabetes

Recently, I read a research review published in early 2020 about the impact of peer support on diabetes health. Not only did people see an impact on the all-important measures of diabetes health (A1c, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.) but they also had improved diabetes self-care habits. Being active, taking medication consistently, nutritional eating patterns, and so on were all better when people with diabetes connected with one another. The best part? The impact on mental health. The toll diabetes takes on one’s mindset was offset by peer support—showing lower rates of diabetes distress, depression, and more.1

Social connection and other health benefits

But social connections do not have to be related to diabetes to impact your health. In 2010, a meta-analytic review was conducted to determine the power of social relationships. The results showed those more socially connected had a 50% higher chance of living longer. On the flip side, they determined isolation resulted in increased cell inflammation and slower recovery from disease and illness. Social isolation had a similar result on one’s health as smoking and high alcohol intake and was also found to be more detrimental to health than poor exercise habits. Finally, depression and anxiety were more common with fewer or lower quality social connections.2

Social connection and heart disease

And that’s not all, other studies show a connection between social relationships and heart disease and stroke. For those more isolated, there was an approximate 30% increased risk for either event.3 One study in the mid-1990s reviewed the connection between healthy men and the risk of death by examining their social networks. Men who were unmarried, had fewer than six close family members or friends, or were not connected with community organizations had an increased risk of death from heart disease, accidents, or suicide.4

Diabetes care is more than diet and exercise

Why am I making connections (pun intended) between social networking and your overall health?

First of all, it’s important to realize there are health-related behaviors beyond food and activity. In diabetes land, we do a great job of hitting on those topics, but we may not emphasize other factors such as quality relationships.

Balance is necessary

Secondly, some folks I meet feel strongly about managing their diabetes with pretty restrictive eating or exercise patterns. Believe me, there’s nothing wrong with managing diabetes aggressively! However, their behaviors can get extreme enough they isolate themselves from dear friends and family members, or special events, in the name of diabetes management. There’s a balance that needs to be discovered to have improved health and well-rounded being.

Mental health considerations

And, finally, those with diabetes are at higher risk of mental illness struggles like diabetes distress. In fact, the Society of Behavioral Medicine estimates diabetes distress is common enough to affect nearly 45% of people with diabetes.5 Isolation could add to this burden while connecting to others (both diabetes peers or those without diabetes) can positively improve mental health challenges.

In short, social connections can be pretty powerful stuff and should not be taken lightly or written off quickly as just a “feel good” health strategy.

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