How Are Diabetes And Mental Health Connected?

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Article published on March 10, 2022 on Time / by Sandeep Ravindran

Living with mental-health disorders is challenging enough without adding physical ailments to the mix. But recent research suggests that people with psychiatric disorders also have higher rates of Type 2 Diabetes, and the combination can be devastating.

“When people who have pre-existing mental illnesses develop diabetes, their outcomes are much worse,” says Anne Doherty, an associate professor of psychiatry at University College Dublin. Compared to people with Type 2 diabetes who don’t have mental illnesses, “they are more likely to develop complications, and they’re significantly more likely to die younger.” The relationship goes both ways; people with diabetes also tend to have higher rates of psychiatric disorders and face worse outcomes than people without diabetes.

As doctors and researchers strive to untangle the mechanisms underlying these links, they’re starting to integrate the treatment of these disparate diseases. The association between diabetes and psychiatric disorders highlights the close connections between mental and physical health. An improved understanding of these connections could give us a better shot at preventing or treating such conditions.

There are some studies that show that by treating depression aggressively and assertively, you can actually improve people’s diabetes control—and, overall, their lives—so it’s really quite exciting.

Anne Doherty, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at University College Dublin

The Link Between Type 2 Diabetes and Psychiatric Disorders

Researchers have known for a while about the link between certain severe psychiatric illnesses, such as depression or schizophrenia, and higher rates of Type 2 diabetes. Until recently, it was unclear how much this association extended to other psychiatric disorders.

In a recent study, Nanna Lindekilde, a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern Denmark, investigated the links between Type 2 diabetes and a broad range of psychiatric disorders. She and her colleagues analyzed 32 systematic reviews of the topic—which were based on 245 different primary studies conducted between 1980 and 2020.

“There, in general, is an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes in people with a psychiatric disorder,” Lindekilde says. “Most research has previously focused on people with depression or schizophrenia, but we have shown an increased risk across a broad range of psychiatric disorders.”

Type 2 diabetes is thought to affect 6% to 9% of the world’s population and 10.5% of the U.S. population. Lindekilde found much higher Type 2 diabetes rates in people with psychiatric disorders, including a 39.7% rate of Type 2 diabetes among people with a sleep disorder and 20.7% rate among those with a binge-eating disorder. Other disorders with high rates of Type 2 diabetes included substance-use disorder (15%), anxiety disorder (13%), bipolar disorder (11%), and psychosis (11%).

What’s more, the association between Type 2 diabetes and many psychiatric disorders goes both ways. For example, studies have shown that people with depression are more likely to get diabetes, and people with diabetes are more likely to get depression.