Diabetes and Dementia

Dementia is an umbrella term that refers to a loss of brain function as the result of certain diseases.

While many people automatically think of Alzheimer’s disease when they hear dementia, that is only one of many causes of dementia.

Dementia is defined as a set of problems that are severe enough to negatively impact a patient’s daily living. These problems include severe memory loss as well as problems with thinking, using language and problem solving. Dementia is currently a primary or secondary diagnosis for many millions of people.

Dementia usually begins with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), where patients have some trouble with thinking and memory. MCI is indicated when these impairments are greater than the “normal” afflictions of age but less than full dementia. For those with diagnosed MCI, about 46 percent will progress to full dementia within three years.

Diabetes, Blood Sugar and Dementia: Researching the Connection

There are numerous comorbidities to diabetes, and vascular damage is one of them. Some studies have suggested that this type of damage may lead to vascular dementia, which is the result of brain damage caused by reduced or blocked blood flow to the brain.

A meta data review of the results of 62 research studies was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The review looked at issues that could cause MCI to worsen to dementia. The researchers found that a patient with diabetes and MCI was more likely to progress to dementia.

Another study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, reported that even in people without a diagnosis of diabetes, elevated blood sugar levels may lead to dementia, with a correlation between higher sugar levels and a higher risk of developing dementia.

There is also some evidence that hypoglycemia as the result of diabetes might trigger neuronal damage to the brain, resulting in dementia. A 12-year study of 3,000 participants conducted by the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found mutuality between the existence of dementia, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and hypoglycemia. Their results showed a doubled risk of developing dementia where there was clinically significant hypoglycemia, as well as evidence that those participants who had dementia were more likely to develop severe hypoglycemic events.

None of these studies proves that diabetes causes dementia, only that there is a connection between the two. Whether the connection is in how the brain processes glucose or in some level of insulin resistance within the body is not yet apparent.

Improving Cognitive Function and Preventing Dementia

Other research includes a study that looked at a diabetic medication to see if use would improve cognitive function in persons with mild Alzheimer’s disease. Results showed a positive change in cognition. Research in this area is ongoing.

Ultimately, the prevention of dementia, or the slowing of its progression, might well lie in controlling one’s diabetes. A healthy diet and exercise might be the ultimate answer to a healthy old age for us all.

Sources: Harvard University, Healthline and Mayo Clinic

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