In a new study, living with a partner or spouse appeared to help people maintain healthy blood sugar levels. How happy their relationship was played no role in their blood sugar health.
The study used information from 3,335 people between the ages of 50 and 89 from 2004 to 2013. Every two years, they had blood tests and were interviewed by nurses about the social support they had and the state of their relationship.
In 2004, 76 percent of the participants were living with a partner. The married folks had healthier blood sugar levels. If people got married or moved in together during the study, their blood sugar improved on average by 0.2 percent.
People who experienced “marital transitions,” meaning a divorce or being widowed, were likely to see their blood sugar levels worsen by 0.2 percent. How happy or supportive their relationships were had less impact on blood sugar than living with someone.
Dr. Katherine Ford of Carleton Univ., who led the study, pointed out the benefits of living with a partner beyond love and happiness. “Oftentimes when people are experiencing stress in their life, having the social support of someone could help reduce that stress… One partner might be more interested in healthy eating and that, sort of by osmosis, may influence the other partner in terms of their lifestyle choices as well.”
There are weak points in the study. It is observational, so it cannot establish a cause, just a pattern. Many participants dropped out, shrinking the data pool. It’s possible that people got divorced because of poor health. The participants in the study were primarily white, and it’s uncertain that the finds would be true for other races.
While the researchers acknowledge those limitations, they point out that the study does offer advice for practical applications. “If someone’s going through a marital transition — whether they’ve lost a partner or are going through a divorce or separation — for the clinician, it might be important to check [blood sugar],” said Dr. Ford. “Likewise, if older adults want to pursue romantic relationships and new partnerships, that should also be supported.”
In addition to offering more medical support to people after the end of a marriage, the study suggests doctors should keep a closer eye on single people. Dr. Ford and her team didn’t look into how having roommates might impact blood sugar. She doubted it would have the same impact because you don’t “share in your life” the same way with a roommate. However, she conceded that it might depend on the closeness of the friendship. After all, if you spend your free time together, exercise together and eat the same meals, that might be where the benefit lies.