Diabetes: The Door to Alzheimer’s Disease

Researchers are discovering the connection between blood sugar control and brain health.

For people with diabetes, managing blood sugar levels can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, one has to be on the watch for other related diseases like high blood pressure, abnormal lipid levels, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and obesity. More recently, a link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) has been established and some refer to it as “type 3 diabetes.”

Diabetes Basics. Food provides energy for our bodies. Most of the food we eat gets processed by the body to simple carbohydrates called glucose (referred to as “blood sugar”). The cells in our body need glucose to provide energy so they can perform their unique functions. Insulin, which is a hormone made in the pancreas, is released when blood sugar levels become high, like after a meal. It helps escort glucose from the blood stream to the cells, so it can be converted into energy or stored for later use. This helps blood glucose levels return to normal.

Types of Diabetes. Not including gestational diabetes, there are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body’s pancreas is unable to make insulin. About 5% of diabetes cases are type 1 and it’s thought to be an autoimmune disease with an unknown cause.

On the other hand, type 2 diabetes occurs when the body doesn’t make enough insulin and the insulin it makes doesn’t work properly. This insulin resistance leads to a buildup of blood sugar and over time, and especially if a healthy pattern of living isn’t maintained, full-blown type 2 diabetes develops. Treatment of both types includes following a healthy eating plan and physical activity. Type 1 diabetes requires the addition of insulin and it varies for type 2.

Type 3 diabetes is a newer term that refers to the condition of having persistent insulin resistance in brain cells (neurons) to the point that it interferes with cognitive function. Neurons require glucose to work and when starved, not only do they decrease in activity and impair memory function, they also develop scar tissue and permanent cognitive decline similar to AD. High glucose levels in older adults has been linked to the development of dementia.

Reducing the Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease

The approach to managing AD risk factors is similar to managing diabetes:

  • Maintain healthy blood glucose levels
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Stay socially active
  • Engage your brain
  • Use a helmet for protection if needed.

—Tamara Schryver, PhD, RD

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