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Diabetes and Dementia

By Sarah StevensonNovember 2, 2017
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With the number of over-65 Americans growing each day, it’s becoming ever more critical to spread awareness of the health changes that go along with aging, including the increased risks seniors face when they already suffer from a chronic disease.

When that disease is diabetes — the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, according to the CDC — caregivers need to be particularly vigilant of their aging loved one’s health in order to minimize associated risks like cardiovascular disease and stroke. Now, unfortunately, we can add dementia to that list of risks.

The Connection Between Diabetes and Dementia

In two studies published in Diabetes Care and the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found a potentially dangerous connection between diabetes and dementia. The link between the two is hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.

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“Hypoglycemia commonly occurs in patients with diabetes mellitus (DM) and may negatively influence cognitive performance,” says the JAMA study. “Cognitive impairment in turn can compromise DM management and lead to hypoglycemia.”

Because the brain uses glucose for energy, cognitive function can be impaired when blood glucose drops too low; severe hypoglycemia can cause neuronal damage, say the study’s authors — possibly leading to neurological issues like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Diabetes affects the production and regulation of insulin, a hormone that helps with glucose absorption by the blood, and that puts diabetics at risk for hypoglycemia. The researchers found that diabetics who had experienced a hypoglycemic event severe enough to require hospitalization had a twofold increased risk for developing dementia over a 12-year follow-up period.

Diabetes and Dementia: How Caregivers Can Help Break the Cycle

To make matters worse, the situation is a vicious cycle: not only were diabetics with hypoglycemia at higher risk for dementia, “participants with dementia were more likely to experience a severe hypoglycemic event,” said the study.

In other words, the cognitive impairment caused by hypoglycemia may increase the risk of future hypoglycemic events — which may, in turn, contribute further to cognitive decline.

If your elderly loved one has diabetes, you can help by staying on top of their daily diabetes care and blood glucose levels in order to minimize their risk of hypoglycemia. You can also schedule a doctor visit to ask about cognitive function tests, which can help diagnose dementia levels. Familiarize yourself with the early signs and symptoms of dementia, such as:

  • Confusion
  • Problems handling money
  • Short-term memory loss

If you have questions about diabetes care, consult the American Diabetes Association, whose mission is to raise awareness of the impact of diabetes in the U.S.

Staying up to date with the latest facts and research is essential for caregivers whose loved ones are living with diabetes — how do you stay informed? Share your tips with us in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson