About Diabetes

diabetes and dementia

Diabetes: Diabetes is a disease in which your blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels are too high.

Fact:  23.6 million people in the United States—7.8 percent of the population—have diabetes.

Diabetes & Dementia

Current research continues to show connections between diabetes and dementia. In fact, following recent discoveries, some scientists have been referring to dementia as a third form of diabetes (in addition to Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes).

With Type 1 diabetes, formerly called Juvenile diabetes, the body does not produce insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas. With Type 2 diabetes, which is more common, the body does not make or use insulin properly. The risk of Type 2 diabetes increases with age, especially beginning in mid-life.

High blood glucose or blood sugar—the hallmark of diabetes—is bad for your body and for your brain.

The links between diabetes and dementia in later life are complex.  One connecting factor may be glucose, a blood sugar that is a major source of energy for our brains. The body regulates glucose by producing insulin. High blood sugars occur when the body does not produce enough insulin or the organs, like muscle, the heart or brain, fail to respond to the insulin.

Insulin is important to the brain because this organ uses a lot of energy. But too much insulin in the blood stream can be harmful to the brain. This form of insulin toxicity may contribute to some of the intellectual loss seen in persons with diabetes. 

In short, chronic diabetes is related to dementia in three fundamental ways.
It can damage the brain through:

Studies suggest a two-fold increased risk for developing dementia in later life in persons with diabetes in their middle or later years.  Research shows that risk factors for diabetes such as midlife obesity and lack of physical activity are also risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia as we get older.

In addition, diabetes can cause other health problems that may increase the onset of dementia.

Being overweight contributes to the diabetes-dementia connection since the fatty tissue that accumulates with obesity reduces the efficiency of insulin in the body, which can then alter the activity and health of brain cells.

Although the risk for dementia is increased in persons with diabetes, individuals should recognize that many people with diabetes live a full healthy life with normal intellect.  Studies show that careful control of blood sugars, based on blood testing, seems to reduce the risk.  Periodic low blood sugars have not been shown to be harmful to memory except in extreme cases.

Contributed by Richard E. Powers, M.D., chairman of the AFA Medical Advisory Board, an associate professor in the departments of neurology, pathology and psychiatry at the University of Alabama (UAB) at Birmingham, and chief of the Bureau of Geriatric Psychiatry, Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation for the State of Alabama.

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