When it comes to lowering your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, there’s no shortage of advice that revolves around diet and exercise.
However, one aspect of healthy aging that may go overlooked is cohabitation.
In a study published today in the journal BMJOpen Diabetes Research & Care, researchers say people who live with a spouse or significant other are more likely to be healthy in the long run.
Researchers from Luxembourg and Canada analyzed nearly a decade’s worth of data, finding that people with spouses are more likely to maintain lower blood sugar levels — regardless of how well they get along with their spouse.
The researchers said the data builds on prior studies that show the benefits of cohabitation — and the downsides of social isolation.
The researchers sifted through data on 3,335 adults without previously diagnosed diabetes between the ages of 50 and 89 from 2004 to 2013.
Researchers said they found that people with a spouse or cohabiting partner had healthier blood sugar levels than those who lived alone.
Katherine Ford, Ph.D., the lead study author and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, told Healthline that a change in marital status was significantly associated with a change in average blood sugar levels.
“For those that transitioned out of a marriage or cohabiting partnership, their average blood sugar levels were worse after controlling for a number of factors,” she said.
In addition, the level of discord in a cohabitation situation didn’t seem to have any bearing on blood sugar levels. Simply living with a partner, even in a strained relationship, is enough to show positive results, the researchers reported.
“It was unexpected that spousal strain and support did not bear on average blood sugar levels,” noted Ford. “It may be that spousal support and strain matter more for those needing to actively manage a diabetes diagnosis.”
Ford added that she intends to further research marital relationships and health behaviors among older adults in order to further understand these connections.
It’s important to note that this study relied on self-reporting and can’t establish a cause for its findings, so it can’t be definitively said that cohabitation lowers one’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Still, the findings – along with prior research that established an increased risk of type 2 diabetes among lonely people – suggest that there’s a connection.
Nancy Mitchell, a registered nurse and contributing writer at AssistedLivingCenter.com who has decades of experience in treating older adults with type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions, told Healthline that older adults are at a high risk of suffering from depression.
“Grief from aging and losing loved ones, coupled with the effects of cognitive decline, can take a toll on the mental and emotional health of older people,” she explained. “One of the characteristic effects of depression is loss of enthusiasm toward regular aspects of life or ‘letting yourself go.’ As a result, the aging population is one of the demographics most in need of social support or companionship to stay committed to maintaining their health.”
With this in mind, it makes sense that living with a partner can help people stay motivated.
“Cohabiting is a source of motivation for either partner,” Mitchell said. “Love is powerful in that even when one person feels demotivated to take care of themselves, they’re still driven to look after the other. When it comes to maintaining health, this often results in reciprocated caregiving. For example, one senior may invite their partner to go out on daily walks, allowing them both to maintain regular activity. In another case, one partner may dedicate time to prepare healthy meals for the other, but in sharing the meals, they both benefit.”
These psychological benefits of living with a spouse or partner can have the effect of encouraging the kind of lifestyle choices that can help people lower their risk of developing conditions like type 2 diabetes, experts say.
The study’s authors reported that older adults who lost a spouse were more likely to see heightened blood sugar levels.
Likewise, older people who were previously single saw improved results after partnering up with a new person.
“Two takeaway messages are to be aware that average blood sugar levels could potentially worsen for older adults experiencing the loss of a marital or cohabiting partnership, and that finding a new romantic partner among single older adults who wish to do so may be good for their average blood sugar levels,” said Ford.