Alzheimer’s Disease and the Blood Sugar Link

Alzheimer’s disease, the 7th leading cause of death in the United States, is a devastating condition that can cause painful interactions with loved ones and a deep loneliness that is unparalleled.  It is a fatal brain disease that, over time, damages memory and learning skills, reasoning and judgment, and communication.  Most people associate Alzheimer’s disease with genetic causes, yet the Mayo Clinic states that less than five percent of cases are obviously caused by genetic disposition alone.  New studies have revealed a link between Alzheimer’s disease and consistently high blood sugars.

Having too much blood sugar for too long wreaks havoc on the bodily organs, and it does not spare the brain.  According to the Alzheimer Association, some studies show a significantly increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in those adults who have Type 2 diabetes.  Diabetes, high blood sugar or hyperglycemia, and insulin resistance can all contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease in aging populations by causing damage to the blood vessels in the brain, hormonal imbalances, and inflammation in the brain.

Cognitive difficulties caused by Alzheimer’s disease are specifically rooted in the death of and lack of the regeneration of brain cells over time.  People with Alzheimer’s may first notice difficulty organizing thoughts or finding words.  Eventually, as more and more brain cells die, the disease makes writing and communicating difficult, causing devastating effects on memory, and may even cause severe emotional and mental disturbances.  Depression, anxiety, aggressiveness, and aimless wandering are some mental symptoms of advanced Alzheimer’s.

So, brain cell death in Alzheimer’s is serious and may be caused by hyperglycemia.  Yet, how exactly high blood sugar is linked to the disease is still being questioned.  One simple explanation from Dr. Emily Deans, in a 2011 article published in Psychology Today, is that hyperglycemia speeds up aging throughout the body, including the brain.  People with diabetes have brain structures similar to non-diabetic people who are older than 80 years, and also often have a smaller hippocampus and amygdala.  It is possible that having a genetic tendency for developing Alzheimer’s and having diabetes could combine to significantly increase the risk of the Alzheimer’s genes playing out.

Other researchers believe that when blood sugar levels are high, less blood is circulating through the brain, doing the job it needs to do to aid in memory and cognition.  These theories are supported by recent, federally funded studies.  Doctors hope that increasing blood flow to the brain of patients with diabetes or another form of hyperglycemia – especially those with dementia – can help patients regain the most basic everyday functions.

To prevent hyperglycemia from encouraging the development of Alzheimer’s disease, most doctors simply suggest switching to a low-glycemic diet full of protein, fiber, fruits, and vegetables.  Exercise can also contribute to a healthier blood sugar level that could work to stabilize blood sugar and prevent any more serious complications.  If you or someone you know is aging and has been diagnosed with diabetes or other blood sugar issues, be sure that the physician involved is aware of the new literature linking these issues with Alzheimer’s.