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A retrospective Tel Aviv University study suggests, apparently for the first time, that people who suffer from job burnout may be prone to developing Type 2 diabetes.
The research doesn't definitively confirm a link between workplace stress and diabetes, but it does suggest that burnout could boost the risk of illness by a "magnitude similar to other risk factors, such as high body mass index, smoking and lack of physical exercise," said study lead author Prof. Samuel Melamed of TAU's Sackler School of Medicine.
The study has just been published in the November/December issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
Melamed and colleagues looked at the experiences of 677 Israeli workers who were followed from 1998 to 2003. Nearly 77 percent of the workers were men, and their average age was about 43 years. Of the workers, 17 developed Type 2 diabetes during the study period. The researchers found that people who experienced job burnout were 1.84 times more likely to become diabetic, even when factors like age, sex and obesity were taken into account.
They also examined the records of a smaller sample of 507 workers and tried to statistically eliminate the possible effect of blood pressure levels. The result: The burned-out workers were then 4.32 times more likely to get Type 2 diabetes, the lifestyle type of diabetes in which the body's sugar levels are excessively high due to inadequate supplies of insulin and to insulin resistance in the cells.
The job burnout may be only part of the picture, Melamed said. "It is possible that these people are prone to diabetes because they can't handle stress very well," he said. "Their coping resources may have been depleted not only due to job stress but also life stresses, such as stressful life events and daily hassles."
Dr. Julio Wainstein, head of the Israel Diabetes Association and director of the diabetes unit at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, told The Jerusalem Post that he had not yet seen the new study but that it "makes sense. We have been involved in numerous lawsuits aiming to prove a connection between the appearance of Type 1 [autoimmune] or Type 2 diabetes in Israel Defense Forces soldiers and their exposure to extreme stress during their service. In some cases, the IDF recognized the connection and took responsibility. Obviously, not every case of diabetes is due to stress or job burnout, but there are some."
Indeed, stress can disrupt the body's ability to process glucose, especially in people whose genetics make them vulnerable, said Dr. Richard Surwit, chief of the division of medical psychology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. Surwit said the study results should be replicated in a much larger group of subjects.
He said the study author "needs to look at hundreds of thousands of people to see if he gets the same thing."
Meanwhile, a separate study carried out by University of California researchers on 62,000 nurses aged 29 to 46 who worked for more than 40 hours a week shows a considerable increase in employees' risk for Type 2 diabetes; working between 40 and 59 hours a week raised the risk by 50%, while putting in 60 hours or more doubled the risk.