Getting a diabetes diagnosis is often sobering and shocking news. But here's a silver lining: Once an adult gets a diagnosis, and is counseled to improve their health, their partner often jumps on board, too, paying more attention to blood sugar, cholesterol and weight loss.
That's the bottom line of a new, large study by Kaiser Permanente researchers who looked at more than 30,000 men and women diagnosed with diabetes from 2007 through 2011 and compared them to 150,000 couples of the same approximate age and body mass index (BMI) who did not have a diagnosis of diabetes within their household.
The research is different than the typical studies done about those newly diagnosed.
"Most research is about the perspective of others as caregivers, about how are they helping the person with diabetes," says Julie Schmittdiel, PhD, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente division of research, who led the study.
The goal of the new study was to look at how the partner's diagnosis affects the person in the couple without diabetes—do they change their health behaviors as their partner gets advice about how to get healthier?
They do, the researchers found. Partners of those diagnosed with diabetes made positive health behavior changes in the year after the diagnosis, compared with those couples who did not get such a diagnosis.
"This is a real opportunity for people within the household to work to reduce health risks'' within the entire family, she says.
The researchers considered the date the adult was diagnosed as the index date. They looked at health records of the patient's partner the year before and the year after this date. They looked to see if the partner of the person diagnosed had gotten their blood sugar tested, had a cholesterol test or blood pressure test, gotten a flu shot, used smoking cessation medicine, attended a weight maintenance health education class, stopped smoking or if they had lost at least 5% of their starting weight.
They compared the activity of the 30,000 partners with that of about 150,000 couples with no diabetes diagnosis. The comparison group and the group with a diabetes diagnosis were similar in age, on average early 50s. The BMI's were similar—on average, nearly obese.
What were the partners of those diagnosed with diabetes more likely to do than those people whose family did not get a diagnosis?
The researchers write that when a patient gets a diagnosis of diabetes, they typically get education and counseling about their health habits and risks and how to improve their health. This knowledge may affect other family members as the person diagnosed talks about the information.
This rub off effect is good, the researchers say, because family members of those diagnosed with diabetes are thought to be at higher risk themselves. (They may eat the same diet, for instance, or gain weight along with their spouse.)
Susan Guzman, PhD, is director of clinical education for the Behavioral Diabetes Institute in San Diego. She and others there address the psychological demands of diabetes. She reviewed the study findings.
As for the finding that partners improve their health habits, "I think that happens when it is a very supportive and healthy relationship."
People who have such good support, she says, such as a partner working on their own lifestyle habits, ''tend to do better. Having your family or spouse join the person with diabetes in making healthy changes can be very helpful.''
However, Dr. Guzman adds, not everyone has that support—and of course many people who get a diabetes diagnosis are single. "For those who don’t have good support, diabetes management can be a very lonely experience and can make integrating healthy change a lot harder," she says.
Even so, resources abound for those newly diagnosed, whether in a supportive relationship or going it solo.
The Behavioral Diabetes Institute, for instance, posts several videos about handling the diagnosis, including a video featuring a panel of patients, sharing their thoughts and ideas.
For those who are in a relationship or within a household, Dr. Schmittdiel suggests: "Talk to each other about how to reduce risk [of another diabetes diagnosis] within the household.'' People should also talk to their doctors about what they work on to become healthier, she advises, and then work on a plan together.