Memory, Stress, and Diabetes

I just saw a rather alarming study. It was a long-term study of memory and cognitive impairment in elderly people with Type 1 diabetes versus those without the disease. In the study subjects, Type 1 diabetes was correlated with significantly higher levels of cognitive impairment in older age. In fact, those with Type 1 diabetes were 83% more likely to have some form of cognitive impairment!

Of course, the authors of the study emphasized that the study showed a correlation, not causation. In other words, there was no proof that the physiological processes involved in Type 1 diabetes caused the increased incidence rate of cognitive impairment. Still, the correlation is enough to show that there most certainly is a relationship, and it’s not just coincidental.


This study hit me particularly hard, as I have had Type 1 diabetes since I was 15 years old, and my father passed away in 1997 after years of battling Alzheimer’s disease. Having been one of my father’s primary caretakers, I know both conditions pretty intimately, and I can certainly tell you dementia isn’t something you want in your future.

And so, the question persisted in my imagination: What, if anything, can we Diabetians do to avoid memory problems in our future? It’s a vague question since the problem has only recently been identified and the mechanism for how it fits together hasn’t been pinned down. But, there is one looming issue that I have seen play a role in both the development of Alzheimer’s disease and the management of diabetes. That issue is stress.

Of course what I’m saying here is drawn from my own observations and experiences rather than scientific study and empirical observations, but I can tell you that my father worried throughout his life. He carried severe stress with him since his early childhood. As a young man, he found himself on the front lines in World War II, where he undoubtedly experienced severe trauma that we would see come back, years later, in frequent paranoid delusional spells when his Alzheimer’s disease was at its worst.

My father spent the last years of his life in an Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home, and many of the fellow people there had similar stories of severe stresses early in their lives. And so it was hard to come away from the experience without nagging hunch that, at the very least, chronic stress and trauma sped up the process of dementia (and that, perhaps, regular attention to stress from an earlier age might have helped at least some of those residents avoid Alzheimer’s).

If that observation has any truth to it, the correlation seen in the study might make a lot of sense. After all, a chronic condition is and always will be a potential source of chronic stress! And so the first thing that came to my mind as I pondered the ramifications of that study was that I better be working skillfully with both the stress that comes from dealing with diabetes, and the everyday stress that can seep into our minds without us even really knowing it.

Furthermore, chronic stress makes diabetes harder to manage, leading to increased hyperglycemia (high blood glucose). So if there IS a physiological connection (i.e. something about hyperglycemia that directly causes dementia to progress), stress once again pushes us closer to that brink!

The takeaway
My first reaction to this study was, of course, to worry. But if stress really is the common denominator, worrying is really about the least productive thing we can do. We need to do just the opposite: let go, de-stress, and remain calm. It’s hard to do, but it’s our best option.

The Type 1 Diabetes Resistor Study is currently seeking participants. Bookmark and tune in tomorrow to learn more.