If you have diabetes, are your loved ones more likely to get it? Science has always said no; diabetes is “noncommunicable.” But a new study raises the scary possibility that spouses and partners may be at increased risk.
The study reviewed the records of over 3 million Kaiser members in Northern California. Researchers looked at life partners of people newly diagnosed with diabetes. Partners and spouses were twice as likely as the general population to develop diabetes in the following year.
Male spouses were at even higher risk, about 2.5 times the national average. Females were slightly less vulnerable than men, but still close to double the average. There were some same-sex partners in the sample, but too few to draw meaningful conclusions, according to researcher Dr. Mohammed K. Ali of Emory University.
The data, which were reported at the 75th Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association, didn’t specify what type of diabetes people had. The newly diagnosed subjects were aged 18–79, so most probably had Type 2.
Dr. Ali said that, “The implications of this are huge. It might be important to…talk to the spouses or partners about their own risks. We know that health-related risks tend to occur among people who are socially connected.”
What’s going on here?
Is this effect real, and if so, what could have caused it? Partners might not be getting sicker. It might just be that people whose partners get diagnosed ask their doctor for a test. Then doctors will discover diabetes in people who already had it but didn’t know.
However, there are several possible ways that diabetes could spread in a household. If you move in with somebody, you may adopt his food and exercise habits. If the new patterns are unhealthy, your health may suffer. If you stay in front of a screen all day eating unhealthy food, your risk of diabetes may increase.
Then there’s stress. If your spouse or lover is diagnosed with diabetes, you will have higher stress levels, and stress is known to promote diabetes. Stress increases insulin resistance and drives people to eat sugary, fatty foods to reduce the stressful feelings.
If these findings are real, I would strongly suspect intestinal bacteria as a major cause. We know that certain types of bacteria living in our guts raise the risk of diabetes and increase people’s weight. If you’re in close contact with someone over a long period of time, you could well pick up some of his bacteria.
Other people can affect our health in ways that we don’t understand yet. We know that a strong predictor for obesity is living with obese people. A strong determinant of blood pressure is the average blood pressure of the community where you live. So it is possible, although totally unproven, that living with someone who has diabetes might make a person more likely to “adopt” it themselves.
As the saying goes, correlation does not prove causation. It’s possible that people prone to diabetes are more likely to live around and be attracted to other people with diabetes. Or it could be that partners are getting themselves tested more than the average person, so they’re more likely to be diagnosed.
Still, Dr. Ali believes his study should be taken seriously. “Even if you are not genetically related, if you are a residing spouse or domestic partner, just that shared environment is associated with an increased risk.” Some experts now believe that when a patient is diagnosed with diabetes, doctors should routinely test partners.
That seems like a good idea to me. Diabetes may or may not be communicable, but the statistical risk for partners is clearly higher. Diabetes is a family affair. Has your partner been tested recently?