It has been clear for many years that Type 2 diabetes increases your risk for strokes and heart disease. Recent study shows that it may also be linked to the onset of dementia. Here’s everything you need to know.
What are diabetes and dementia?
About 37.3 million Americans—or about 1 in 10—have diabetes, and about one in five people don’t even know they have it. Type 2 diabetes is an impairment in the way the body regulates and uses sugar (glucose) as a fuel. This long-term condition results in too much sugar circulating in the bloodstream. Eventually, high blood sugar levels can lead to disorders of the circulatory, nervous, and immune systems. Most people with diabetes have Type 2, which is linked to a lack of exercise and being overweight. In Type 2 diabetes, there are primarily two interrelated problems at work. Your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin—a hormone that regulates the movement of sugar into your cells—and cells respond poorly to insulin and take in less sugar.
Dementia is not a specific disease but rather a general term for the impaired ability to remember, think, make decisions or solve problems that interfere with a person’s day-to-day life. It affects people in different ways and has many types based on which parts of the brain are affected. The most common type is Alzheimer’s disease, while other major forms include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and a group of diseases that contribute to frontotemporal dementia.
How are the two diseases related?
Recently, scientists have been finding more evidence that could link Type 2 diabetes with Alzheimer’s disease. Several research studies following large groups over many years suggest that adults with Type 2 diabetes have a higher risk of later developing Alzheimer’s. While doctors are not exactly sure what causes Alzheimer’s or how these two diseases are connected, they do know that high blood sugar or insulin can harm the brain in several ways:
- When diabetes is not controlled, too much sugar remains in the blood. Over time, this can damage organs, including the brain.
- Diabetes raises the risk of heart disease and stroke, which damage the heart and blood vessels. Damaged blood vessels in the brain may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
- The brain depends on many different chemicals, which may be unbalanced by too much insulin. Some of these changes may help trigger Alzheimer’s disease.
- High blood sugar causes inflammation. This may damage brain cells and help Alzheimer’s to develop.
How to reduce your risk of diabetes and dementia
The good news is that you can reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes—and therefore perhaps your risk of dementia. Here’s what you need to do:
- Maintain a healthy body weight: regular physical exercise can help you reduce your risk of developing both diabetes and dementia.
- Follow a well-balanced diet: try to follow a healthy diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins and avoid too many fatty, salty and sugary foods.
- Reduce the amount of alcohol that you consume and avoid smoking.
- Treat high cholesterol and high blood pressure effectively.
Though the exact ways that diabetes contributes to dementia aren’t fully understood, a growing body of evidence suggests a link between the two diseases, and scientists suspect that diabetes damages brain cells in a number of different ways.
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