Researchers have long established that diabetes (prolonged high blood sugar) damaged blood vessels throughout the body over time, specifically damaging organs like the kidney, eyes, and heart. Previous studies have also concluded that diabetes affects brain health, but to what extent? Scientists in Tasmania performed a five-year study to examine the correlation between diabetes and brain health, and the results surprised the researchers.
Dr. Michelle Callisaya (University of Tasmania) and colleagues recruited more than 700 participants between ages 55-90 to determine if diabetes and brain health have a cause-and-effect relationship in the elderly. By using MRI scans, they found that older people with type 2 diabetes had smaller brains (brain atrophy) at the beginning of the study when compared to people without diabetes. They also found that people with type 2 diabetes experienced a decline in verbal memory and verbal fluency. Verbal memory is the ability to recall words, and verbal fluency measures a person’s ability to think, plan, organize, and initiate tasks.
In other words, they concluded that people with diabetes had smaller brains at the beginning of the study; however, they were unable to conclude that diabetes itself causes brain atrophy.
Diabetes and brain health
Diabetes also has a strong correlation with the neurodegenerative disease dementia. In fact, a person’s chances of developing dementia double if they have poorly controlled diabetes.
Doctors see decreased brain health in people with type 2 diabetes more so than in people with type 1 diabetes. Dr. Joel Zonszein, director of the Clinical Diabetes Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York said, “The longer you have diabetes [in general], the more of a chance there is of developing dementia, but we see much less of it in people with type 1 diabetes whose diabetes is well-controlled.”
Best practices to manage diabetes
It’s also important to note that people with type 2 diabetes typically have additional health problems like obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. These health conditions coupled with diabetes make it crucial for people with type 2 diabetes to maintain good control of their diabetes and keep their blood sugar levels in a healthy range.
“The take-home message to me is that good early control of all of these risk factors—blood sugar, cholesterol, weight and blood pressure—is important, along with getting good, regular exercise,” Dr. Zonszein said. “People who have these risk factors have a higher risk for cognitive decline.”
The best way to keep your diabetes under control is to eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, and take any medications your doctor prescribes to you to manage the disease. If you have questions about how to keep your blood sugar levels and A1C in a healthy range, talk to your doctor.