Diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease

Research Establishes Link Between Two Complex Diseases

Senior with diabetes
Insulin problems associated with diabetes might also affect brain health. STEEX/Getty Images

Diabetes, a disease in which the body fails to produce or properly use insulin, and Alzheimer's disease, a neurodegenerative disease of the brain, are two of our most complex and widespread health problems. Interestingly, research is showing how diabetes and Alzheimer's disease may be related.

Does Diabetes Increase Risk for Alzheimer's Disease?

In a study at Uppsala University in Sweden, diabetes in mid-life was found to be associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's in later life. The study tested more than 2,000 men for blood glucose levels at age 50 and then tested them again approximately 32 years later. Those with insulin problems at age 50 were almost 1.5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer's than those who did not have insulin problems, even when factors, such as blood pressure, cholesterol, education level and body mass index, were controlled. The association was strongest among those who did not carry the ApoE 4 gene variant that has been associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer's.

Links have been found between diabetes and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) as well. In a study by the Mayo Clinic, rates of diabetes were similar among people with MCI and people with no cognitive impairment; however, those with MCI were more likely to have developed diabetes before age 65, had diabetes for 10 years or more and had insulin treatment and/or diabetic complications.

In a study by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, researchers tried to identify a molecular basis for the interaction between diabetes and Alzheimer's. Their conclusion was that blood glucose levels and levels of beta amyloid in the brain interacted in such a way that damaged the brain's blood vessels.

Can Preventing Diabetes Reduce Alzheimer's Risk?

Maybe. Researchers at Columbia University found that keeping blood sugar levels in check can lessen or possibly stave off even normal age-related cognitive decline in those that have diabetes and those who do not. Their theory is that blood glucose levels affect the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory, emotion and motor skills.

Although more research needs to be conducted to further clarify the relationship between diabetes and Alzheimer's, it seems clear that preventing or controlling diabetes could be very good for your brain. How does one go about reducing the risk for diabetes? Interestingly, a healthy diet and plenty of exercise are essential components of a diabetes prevention or management program -- two lifestyle factors that have also been shown to be good for the brain.

Cognitive Problems Associated With Diabetes Duration and Severity. Newswise. August 7, 2008. http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/543330/?sc=dwhr;xy=5046009

Diabetes in Mid-Life Linked to Increased Risk of Alzheimer's Disease. Newswise. April 1, 2008. http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/539278/?sc=dwhr

Neale, T. (December 30, 2008). Keeping Blood Sugar Low May Help Stem Geriatric Memory Loss. MedPage Today. http://www.medpagetoday.com/Neurology/GeneralNeurology/12301

Study Links Diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease. Newswise. April 30, 2008. http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/540253/?sc=dwhr

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