Researchers think that having a spouse or a partner with whom you live may be important for an adult’s health as a source of social support and/or stress.
Studies have shown that marriage and/or living with someone else is good for your health, especially for older adults. Additionally, a number of studies have shown links between the risk of type 2 diabetes and a variety of social health factors, such as social isolation, loneliness, housing arrangements, social support, and the size of one’s social network.
But the effects of each social health dimension are complicated, so a group of researchers from Luxembourg and Canada set out to see if there was a link between the average glycemic levels of older adults and their marital status and quality.
They analyzed biomarker data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which is a sample of adults aged 50 and over and their partners residing in England, who are surveyed every other year, with biomarker data gathered in alternate waves.
The data for the research came from 3,335 persons without a history of diabetes who were between the ages of 50 and 89 and living in the United Kingdom between the years 2004 and 2013.
The sample consisted of individuals who did not have diabetes in their family history and were between 50 to 89 during wave 2 (2004-2005) of the ELSA study (the first year when biomarker data were made available). Self-reporting was used to find out if the person had diabetes before.
In waves 2 (2004–2005), 4 (2008–09), and 6 (2012–2013), participants were asked to have a nurse visit after the primary interview, and blood was drawn to determine their HbA1c (average glycemic or blood glucose) levels.
In addition to being asked whether they were married or cohabitating, respondents were also questioned about if they had a spouse, partner, or other people with whom they shared a home.
A variety of additional characteristics were also acquired, including the subjects’ age, income, occupation, smoking, level of physical activity, level of depression, body mass index (BMI), and social network relationships of different kinds (child, other immediate families, friend).
The information revealed that 76% of respondents in wave 2 (2004–2005) were married/cohabiting.
Data analysis over time revealed that individuals who had marital transitions (such as divorce) also saw substantial changes in their HbA1c levels and pre-diabetes probabilities.
It seems that having a supportive or contentious relationship was less relevant than just having a relationship at all since it did not significantly affect the average blood glucose levels.
Due to its observational nature, this research cannot determine the cause. There were some troubles with the study, like the fact that a lot of people dropped out of the ELSA between waves with biomarker data. More than half of the wave 2 sample was eliminated because there were no follow-up results. There was also a chance that people who were sicker were more likely to get divorced.
The use of HbA1c as an outcome measure rather than self-reported diagnoses, according to the authors, was a strength of their study because it is more accurate and precise when used in population-based surveys than diagnosed medical conditions, which depend on participants having access to appropriate healthcare prior to study enrollment.
“Overall, our results suggested that marital/cohabitating relationships,” the authors conclude, “were inversely related to HbA1c levels regardless of dimensions of spousal support or strain. Likewise, these relationships appeared to have a protective effect against HbA1c levels above the pre-diabetes threshold.
“Increased support for older adults who are experiencing the loss of a marital/cohabitating relationship through divorce or bereavement, as well as the dismantling of negative stereotypes around romantic relationships in later life, may be starting points for addressing health risks, more specifically deteriorating glycemic regulation, associated with marital transitions in older adults.”