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The Disturbing Link Between Diabetes and Alzheimer’s

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonMarch 25, 2014

American Diabetes Association Alert Day is today— which means it is the perfect time to get educated about your diabetes risk and learn about how preventing diabetes could also keep you from developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Here’s a wake-up call the American Diabetes Association wants everyone to hear: don’t wait until it’s too late to find out your risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

“1 in 3 people who were born in the year 2000 are expected to get diabetes as they grow older,” says Dr. Marjorie Cypress, President of Health Care and Education at the American Diabetes Association.

“For people 65 and older, it’s estimated that about 25% of them have diabetes, and maybe a third more are undiagnosed.” As many as one in two people over age 65 are also prediabetic, meaning their blood glucose levels are higher than normal, and the risk of developing diabetes only grows as we age.

That’s why the American Diabetes Association holds an Alert Day on the fourth Tuesday of every March: to encourage Americans to take the Diabetes Risk Test and find out if they and their loved ones might be at risk.

The Dangers of Diabetes

Diabetes may be making a lot of headlines due to its increasing prevalence. But, Dr. Cypress points out, it doesn’t always get “real” attention — “People don’t realize how serious it is, how it can affect your life, shorten your life,” she says. Also, “it’s very costly. It’s one of those diseases that if we don’t try to stop, it’s going to really bankrupt us financially.”

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In 2012, reports the American Diabetes Association, the U.S. spent $245 billion total on those diagnosed with diabetes; $176 billion of that was for direct medical costs.

Diabetes also increases one’s risk of developing other concurrent health problems, or comorbidities. These may include:

  • Heart disease
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Kidney disease
  • Amputations
  • Depression
  • Nervous system damage
  • Skin conditions
  • Problems with the eyes that can lead to blindness

Diabetes and the Link to Alzheimer’s Disease

Perhaps most alarming of all, research is finding a link between diabetes and the development of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. High-sugar foods that increase our risk of type 2 diabetes have also been found to have a role in Alzheimer’s; in fact, diabetes is in itself a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

There are also predisposing factors that both diseases share, like:

  • Age
  • Physical inactivity
  • Being overweight
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
The exact cause and mechanism underlying the link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s is still being studied, but scientists are looking to insulin resistance as the probable culprit. Also, Dr. Cypress notes, diabetes can affect blood vessels, including those that lead to the brain — reduced blood flow to the brain can have a negative effect on our neural and cognitive health.

Ways to Decrease Your Risk of Diabetes and Alzheimer’s

As worrying as it is to hear about research that links diabetes and Alzheimer’s, there is also ample data to support the fact that it is possible to make lifestyle changes to decrease the kinds of risk factors that lead to both diseases.

A major clinical study from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), National Institutes of Health (NIH), called the Diabetes Prevention Program, found that “participants who lost a modest amount of weight through dietary changes and increased physical activity sharply reduced their chances of developing diabetes.”

The news gets even better:

“Lifestyle changes worked particularly well for participants aged 60 and older, reducing their risk by 71 percent,” reported the study.

Dr. Cypress says you want to aim for about 150 minutes of exercise per week, plus a nutritious diet. “One of the things we generally recommend is, eat real food,” she says. “Vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruit. Eat a generally healthy diet and try to decrease the amount of fats in your diet.”

Tips for Diabetes and Alzheimer’s Prevention for Seniors

What if you have low mobility? There are still plenty of ways that you can incorporate physical activity into your routine, says Dr. Cypress. Even if you have arthritis, for instance, you can be active by:

  • Walking
  • Doing water aerobics and pool therapy
  • Doing exercises with resistance bands or light weights while simply sitting in your chair
  • Vaccumming or mowing the lawn around your house
Hydration, is also critical, says Dr. Cypress. “As we get older, we lose our sense of thirst. By the time we feel thirsty, we’re already way behind on how much we need.”
Following these tips and knowing what your risks for diabetes and Alzheimer’s are could greatly impact your health today.
“I would encourage everyone, no matter what age you are, to take the tests and know what your risks are,” says Dr. Cypress.

That’s what Alert Day is for, after all—ensuring that we all make our physical and cognitive health an ongoing priority.

Have you and your loved ones taken the Diabetes Risk Test yet? We want to hear your story— join the conversation below.

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Sarah Stevenson
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Sarah Stevenson
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