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Diabetes and the Brain

There has been much media coverage of the current “epidemic” of type II diabetes, a chronic disease often associated with poor diet, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle. And because the disease takes many years to develop, most of the people with newly-diagnosed diabetes are 65 and older. Worse, a large fraction of people with type II diabetes—and also a borderline, “pre-diabetic” condition known as impaired glucose tolerance—aren't even aware of their problem.

There are many health risks associated with diabetes, including heart disease, vascular disease, and loss of vision; but among older people, the potential complications may also involve damage to the brain. As described in our article Sweet Memories, research to date suggests that elderly people with diabetes may have a greater risk—perhaps twice the risk—of developing dementia (such as Alzheimer's disease) compared to people without diabetes.

What's to be done? First of all, if you are middle-aged or older, make sure to ask your doctor to check your blood sugar periodically—particularly if you are overweight and don't exercise much. If it turns out that you have do have diabetes, or even borderline-high blood sugar, take it seriously. Your doctor can advise you whether changes in diet and exercise may be enough to control your condition, or whether medication might be needed.

Second, if you do have diabetes, test your blood sugar and keep it within the limits recommended by your doctor! While many people (understandably) don't like sticking their fingers to draw blood, it is important to check blood sugar levels, especially after meals. New types of home glucose monitors may allow you to draw blood for testing from less sensitive locations, such as the forearm, and make the process of controlling your blood sugar less uncomfortable.

Finally, even if your glucose levels are normal today, you can help reduce your chances of developing diabetes in the future by improving your diet. Large, well-done clinical trials show that eating a healthy, high-fiber diet and exercising on most days of the week can dramatically reduce your risk of developing diabetes. It may take some effort to change your habits now, but the payoff down the line may be a reduced risk for diabetes, reduced risk for dementia and memory loss, and an overall healthier life.

Catherine E. Myers, Ph.D.
Co-Director,
Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers-Newark

Copyright 2003 Memory Loss and the Brain