The presence of severe PTSD symptoms may effectively double a woman’s chances of developing the blood sugar disorder known as Type 2 diabetes, a group of researchers from several U.S. institutions has concluded.
Compared to men, women have substantially heightened chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of exposure to dangerous or potentially life-threatening environments. In a long-term study published in January 2015 in the American Medical Association journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and two other institutions looked at the impact that being affected by PTSD has on the odds that a woman will ultimately develop Type 2 diabetes. These researchers also explored the underlying reasons why a PTSD diagnosis might be linked to increased diabetes risks for women.
Women and PTSD
At some point in their lifetimes, roughly half of all American women will experience traumatic situations or events known to act as precursors for the development of PTSD. Examples of these situations and events include physical assault exposure, sexual assault exposure, direct or indirect exposure to combat, involvement in a natural disaster, involvement in a major accident and exposure to any kind of active abuse during childhood. In the aftermath of exposure to traumatic experiences, approximately one-fifth of all affected women will develop diagnosable PTSD symptoms (including such things as an inability to turn off the body’s “fight-or-flight” response and nightmares or flashbacks that force an involuntary reliving of previous trauma). Although men have somewhat higher overall risks for trauma exposure, they develop PTSD less than half as often as women, the National Center for PTSD reports.
Some women have particularly elevated chances of developing PTSD after exposure to dangerous or potentially life-threatening circumstances. Groups of women known to have heightened risks include individuals exposed to severely traumatic environments, individuals exposed to sexual assaults, individuals with a history of serious mental illness, individuals who experience severe immediate reactions to trauma exposure and individuals who experience multiple traumatic situations or events.
Type 2 Diabetes
People with Type 2 diabetes produce what would normally be a sufficient amount of insulin for blood glucose management, but fail to respond adequately to the chemical effects of the hormone. (Conversely, people with Type 1 diabetes don’t make enough insulin.) Long-term consequences of this inadequate response include damage to key organs and organ systems, including the cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) system, the nervous system, the kidneys and the eyes. Type 2 diabetes develops gradually and occurs substantially more often than Type 1 diabetes.
PTSD and Women’s Diabetes Susceptibility
In the study published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers from Harvard, Columbia University and Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital used data from a long-term U.S. project called the Nurses’ Health Study II to explore the impact that the presence of PTSD has on women’s chances of eventually developing Type 2 diabetes. This data included information gathered from 49,739 women between the years 1989 and 2011. The researchers undertook their project, in part, because of PTSD’s known association with certain risk factors for the onset of Type 2 diabetes. In addition, no previous studies had focused on the ongoing risks for Type 2 diabetes in women affected by PTSD.
After analyzing their data, the researchers concluded that women with PTSD have significantly increased chances of developing Type 2 diabetes as they grow older. The level of elevated risk apparently depends on the severity of any given woman’s PTSD symptoms; while roughly 7 percent of the study participants unaffected by PTSD ultimately developed Type 2 diabetes, fully 12 percent of the women with severe cases of PTSD had Type 2 diabetes by the time they reached age 60.
The study’s authors concluded that two PTSD-related factors—the use of antidepressants and steepened odds of becoming obese—account for roughly 50 percent of the observed increase in women’s Type 2 diabetes risks. They urge doctors who treat PTSD-affected women to take note of these individuals’ heightened chances of undergoing health changes that support the onset of diabetes.