Can A Diabetes Diagnosis Offer Benefits to Others?

Health Writer
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When you go out to eat, do you find that if someone at the table “orders healthy,” it nudges you to be a bit more selective? Or did someone in your office start to walk during lunch hour, forgoing the usual visits to the local lunch haunts, and you decide “I’ll join.” A 2018 study suggests that if someone in the family is diagnosed with diabetes, the silver lining, if you can call it that, is the influence the diagnosis may have on other family members and their lifestyle habits.

The observational study published in the July/August 2018 issue of Annals of Family Medicine, reviewed the electronic health records (EHRs) of patients (and their partners) at Kaiser Permanente Northern California from 2007 through 2011, assessing changes in eight health behaviors. The study focused on these patterns of behavior in the partners of people with newly diagnosed diabetes, before and after the diagnosis. The behaviors were compared to the behaviors of a corresponding group of subjects whose co-residing partners were not diagnosed with diabetes. This was a large study involving 180,910 couples.

The findings revealed a small but significant change in behavior patterns in people with partners diagnosed with diabetes, even when no formal intervention occurred. These partners were twice as likely to take a weight management class and 25 percent more likely to use a smoking cessation program, compared to the partners of those individuals not diagnosed with diabetes. The partners were also between two and seven percent more likely to do glucose and lipid screening, take the flu vaccine, and perform blood pressure screening, compared to the partners of individuals not diagnosed with diabetes. Typically, health care providers will dispense information on how to reduce the complications of diabetes through nutrition, exercise, and other better health practices when counseling a newly diagnosed patient.

This is one of the first studies to examine how others in the household behave in the presence of a partner’s new diabetes diagnosis. The researchers suggest that at the time of a new diabetes diagnosis there may be an opportunity for healthcare providers, especially family physicians, to address health at a “household level,” using the diagnosis as a teachable moment. To be clear, teachable moment does not suggest making the newly diagnosed individual with diabetes feel like they have somehow failed to follow best practices in lifestyle. The intent is to use the moment to help everyone involved feel inspired to learn about how lifestyle behavior changes can improve the health of all household members.

If you consider that the diet and exercise habits in the household of someone newly diagnosed with diabetes might also put others at risk of a similar diagnosis, because of the type of food being consumed, or the amount of food being consumed, or the lack of meaningful physical activity, then this diagnosis is an opportunity to improve lifestyle among all family members, especially if they consider using a team approach to health in the household.

As a lifestyle and health coach, I often meet a family member who is struggling with a diagnosis of obesity or diabetes. When it’s a child or teen, I can tell you that unless the whole family “buys into” working as a team to change the home environment – food, exercise, tech, and sleep habits – the individual will be incredibly challenged to try and adopt a healthier lifestyle approach amidst a family that chooses otherwise. Yes, if you have a chronic disease like obesity or diabetes, you have to navigate many challenges or temptations in the world at large. If the home where you spend most of your awake time is challenging you on an hourly basis with temptations, because of the behaviors of others, then it can thwart even the best efforts at a personal lifestyle change.

I’ve personally noted that if one individual in a family or household is diagnosed, others in the family have equal risk, especially when it comes to lifestyle-related diseases like obesity and diabetes. So, the fact that researchers found that the time of diagnosis is a teachable moment for a partner, to me, seems like a strong validation of how I have been approaching the family unit of an individual who wants to modify their risk of disease – get them ALL involved if they are willing.

When you decide to support someone’s lifestyle change, by embracing the recommendations, it’s an act of love and support AND there’s really no downside. The likely payoff for you, based on this study, is clearly a health gamechanger. This study should nudge doctors and other first line health practitioners to discuss the shared benefits of a household or group health behavior effort. The researchers hope for more focus on interventions in the public health sector to improve “family” rather than “individual” health.

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Exercise for Diabetes: Resistance Training

A Diet Recalibration to Treat Obesity