More people have taken up smoking during the pandemic while regular smokers have increased their intake leading to a rise in the risk of type 2 diabetes amongst Australians, new research shows.

The percentage that Australians smoke increased by 2.2 per cent in 2020 according to data from 840,000 people tested by SiSu Health.

The rate of new or returned smokers rose by 300,000 in 2020, but has declined in 2021, although is still higher than pre-pandemic rates. Weight gain, fewer visits to the doctor and increased anxiety levels during the pandemic have also contributed to higher levels of the disease.

We’re seeing that nutritional profiles are changing, particularly with working from home.

“Some of the greatest increases, coming from those in middle age, suggest a reversion to old habits during a time of stress and anxiety,” SiSU’s managing director Dr Noel Duncan told Central News.

“We’re seeing that people are doing less physical activity, we’re seeing that nutritional profiles are changing, particularly with working from home, [and the] habits of people potentially taking in more calories.

“One of the risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes is high blood pressure and physical activity, nutrition, smoking and stress are all indicators we need to make sure that we keep a close eye on.”

SiSU found type 2 diabetes increased in all states and territories, except South Australia.

People with a high AUSDRISK (Australian type 2 Diabetes Risk Assessment Tool) score, currently have a one in 14 chance of being diagnosed within the next five years.

Across Australia, this score has increased by 8.2 per cent from 2019 to 2021, despite there being a decrease of 2.4 per cent from the years 2018 to 2019.

The data was collected from free health checks run by SiSU Health at supermarkets and pharmacies , such as Priceline, across the country.

For the type 2 diabetes health check, “individuals complete the health check by answering a set of questions from the AUSDRISK assessment, we [SiSU Health] are able to de-identify the data, make it anonymous and then aggregate it in such a way that we can assess it”, said Dr Duncan.

In addition to this, at the start of the first lockdowns in Australia, there was a considerable increase of 13.7 per cent from March to April of high-risk rates.

The Northern Territory experienced the highest increase of 7.4 per cent, which may be attributed to the large Indigenous population, who are three times more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than non-Indigenous Australians

Risk increase by month and year

Type 2 diabetes trends over the period of 2017-2021. Graphic by SiSU

Dr Duncan hypothesised the increase of type 2 diabetes risk is largely attributed to a change in lifestyle.

Although type 2 diabetes has a strong genetic predisposition, it is highly linked to obesity and Dr Duncan said a combination of  the decrease of physical activity and incidental movement with an increase of potential calorie intake, smoking, anxiety and stress throughout the pandemic have resulted in “an increase in the prevalence of individuals who are at risk of type 2 diabetes”.

SiSU Health data also revealed Australians gained an average three 3kgs during the pandemic, and “more than half the respondents had a BMI greater than 25, which is considered overweight”.

A LiveLighter survey which was conducted between February and July last year, revealed similar data, showing that 37 per cent of the 2000 respondents reported weight gain during this period and an overall 50 per cent had increased ordering takeaway, either from a local restaurant or an online service.

Lack of interaction with the health professional community is having an impact on the results we’re reporting.

Dr Duncan said the decrease in health service visits last year is a contributor to the increase of high AUSDRISK scores because “by reducing the amount of contact an individual is having with a health professional, health literacy is reducing, and as a consequence, individuals aren’t making as informed health choices”.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare also showed health service visits in general were greatly reduced last year, especially at the height of the pandemic, with primary care face-to-face visits decreasing by 22.1 per cent and emergency department visits reducing by 13.9 per cent.

In reducing health care visits, individuals were unable to keep on top of their current health status and remain informed about risks such as high blood pressure, which is closely related to type 2 diabetes.

The rate of high blood pressure also saw an increase of 18.4 per cent over the lockdown period.

Dr Duncan said he hoped in releasing the data it will encourage individuals to get their health checks and increase health literacy which will increase “the chances of them making more informed choices” in relation to their physical health.

“Lack of interaction with the health professional community is having an impact on the results we’re reporting,” he said.

Main image of insulin medicine tube and needles on a table. Source: Bokeh/Flickr