Is Your Attitude Boosting Your Diabetes Risk?

Being pessimistic, negative and hostile is linked with a higher risk of developing diabetes, a new study finds. So, can you change?

Black bull dog wearing red, white and blue topAttitude check: A new study suggests having a negative attitude may increase the risk of getting type 2 diabetes.

If you've been diagnosed with prediabetes, or you are just trying to avoid getting diabetes, you may already be exercising more and eating a more healthful diet.

You might also check your attitude, new research suggests. In the study, researchers have found that positive personality traits, such as optimism, may actually help lower the risk of getting type 2 diabetes.1

The researchers followed nearly 140,000 women, ages 50 to 79, enrolled in the large Women's Health Initiative study, for an average of 14 years.

None had type 2 diabetes at the study start. During the follow up, more than 19,000 women did get a diagnosis of diabetes. At the study start, the women answered questions about personality traits.

Three traits made a difference, says Juhua Luo, PhD, associate professor in epidemiology at the Indiana University School of Public Health, Bloomington, who led the study. Pessimism, hostility and negativity all boosted the risk of getting diabetes, she says. "I would say it is a modest risk."

The study evaluated women only, so it's not clear if the findings would apply to men. However, other studies have found such traits as hostility raised diabetes risk in men. The new study is published in the journal Menopause: The Journal of The North American Menopause Society.1

Study Detail

The researchers classified the women into four groups, depending on the degree of the traits. Compared to the women who were the least optimistic, those in the most optimistic group had a 12% lower risk of getting diabetes, Dr. Luo says. 

The women who were least negative had a 9% lower risk of getting diabetes than those in the most negative group.

And the women who were least hostile had a 17% lower risk then the women who had high hostility levels.

To determine optimism, for instance, women said whether they agreed with such statements as "I hardly ever expect things to go my way." For negativity, they answered such questions as whether they would make a scene in a public place if someone angered them.

And for hostility, they said whether they agreed or disagreed with such statements as "It is safer to trust nobody."1

Explaining the Link

There may be two mechanisms at work, Dr. Luo tells OnTrackDiabetes. One is biological, she says, likely related to stress, which can affect blood sugar adversely.

"Another is related to behavior," she says. "Their personality may influence lifestyle."  For instance, someone who is pessimistic might feel following a good diet can't help much, so why bother?


For years, experts have known that being overweight or obese, having a family history of diabetes and physical inactivity are all risk factors for diabetes. Race and ethnicity may boost risk, too, the American Diabetes Association says. African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, American Indians, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Asian-Americans all have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.2

Some previous studies have also linked personality characteristics and diabetes risk, as Dr. Luo points out. For instance, one study linked anger with a diabetes diagnosis.3

Another found hostility among older, unmarried men linked with higher blood sugar levels.4

The research about personality traits and diabetes risk is fairly new, says JoAnn Pinkerton, MD, executive director of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Virginia Health System. She reviewed the findings.

And she thinks the research is definitely worth paying attention to. The findings in the Luo study suggest that women who have low levels of optimism, high negativity and hostility might use focus on improving those traits and hopefully lower their diabetes risk.

Experts often say that you can't change your personality, but you can change your behavior. "We are learning you can change the way people think," Dr. Pinkerton says.
When women are ready to change, there are many ways to do so, Dr. Pinkerton says.

Tips for Becoming More Positive

If you put yourself in the negative category, here some tips from Dr. Pinkerton. See if they help turn your frown upside down:

  • Recognize and identify negative thought patterns as they crop up; learn to step back from them.
  • Consider training in mindfulness, which can help break the pattern of negativity.
  • Focus on what you are grateful for, not what you are worried about.

Enlisting the help of a counselor may be beneficial, as well. 

But do women who are negative and pessimistic and hostile recognize themselves as such? Dr. Luo suspects they do, either by acknowledging it themselves or being told they are by loved ones or coworkers.

The findings also suggest that doctors working with women with these traits may want to encourage more modest goals, at least to start, Dr.Luo says, so they may be more apt to be on board.

Neither Dr. Luo or Dr. Pinkerton have any relevant disclosures.

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