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'Impossible to have a healthy body without a healthy mind': diabetes researchers


By Memorial University

The mind-body connection is a regular topic of conversation, as seen on bestseller lists and social media — and in health-related research.

Dr. Cindy Whitten, sociology
Dr. Cindy Whitten, sociology
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Dr. Cindy Whitten, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, describes herself as a scholar/practitioner.

She engages in research that explores how societal factors affect health.

“One silver lining to the pandemic is the increased emphasis on taking care of our mental health,” said Dr. Whitten, who has a background in correctional health and the corresponding links between addiction and criminality. “It’s nearly impossible to have a healthy body without a healthy mind.”

Most recently, she has been part of a partnership lead by Dr. Sahar Iqbal, Faculty of Medicine, focuses on aging populations in NL with type 2 diabetes. Dr. Iqbal was awarded a Medical Research Foundation grant to complete her research.

Dr. Sahar Iqbal, Faculty of Medicine
Dr. Sahar Iqbal, Faculty of Medicine
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

By analyzing their longitudinal data, the pair were able to prove that psycho-social factors have a definitive impact on how individuals manage their disease.

Among their results is a direct link between the ability to cope with stress and patients’ AIC levels, which indicate glycemic control, over time.

Dr. Iqbal’s primary interest is in diabetes, obesity and metabolic medicine.

“Diabetes is a complex condition beset with a multitude of factors that lead to poor health and has a major impact on the mental health of individuals. The most recent guidelines for diabetes care reflect a growing focus on the impact of psychosocial factors and determinants of health,” says Dr. Iqbal. “I am very happy to be contributing to this research.”

‘Precarious situation’

The population of Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the highest populations per capita of type 2 diabetes in Canada which, when not managed well, can result in co-morbidities like cardiovascular issues.

Managing these issues in turn further strains our health-care system.

Dr. Whitten says their findings are important from a societal point of view, as well as a medical model.

“We are in a precarious situation with accessing appropriate health care, which is definitely having an impact on our population,” she said. “From a timing perspective, being at the tail-end of a pandemic, we can clearly see how different societal factors have exacerbated patients’ ability to deal with stress.”

The researchers hope that the psychometric scale surveys they used as part of their study will subsequently assist health-care providers when evaluating patients.

“This is social science and medicine married in a strong partnership.” — Dr. Cindy Whitten

The women posit that type 2 diabetes and obesity and their association with psychosocial behaviour demonstrate that stress and other psychosocial factors significantly reduce the quality of life within the aging population by adversely affecting both physical and mental health.

Glycemic control and body mass index worsen progressively with aging patients with diabetes distress and negative appraisal of their disease, they say.

‘More than one school of thought’

Drs. Whitten and Iqbal believe another way to effect change in the long term is to focus on collaboration between disciplines.

They are hopeful that an improved model of intervention will include cognition and emotion-focused elements, such as psychology and social prescribing, in addition to clinical treatments for managing diabetes.

They continue to work together on multiple other projects, including the impact of blue and green prescribing (connecting people to their surroundings via activities in nature or water) in diabetes and obesity.

“Further types of interdisciplinary research such as this will certainly have an impact on patient outcomes and on society as a whole,” Dr. Whitten said. “When we respect other disciplines and understand there is more than one school of thought when coming up with solutions to societal problems, we all win. This is social science and medicine married in a strong partnership.”

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