First, the good news. People, in general, are living longer. And people who have diabetes can and do live long, healthy lives. Now, the not-so-good news: People who have diabetes are more likely to experience memory problems than people without the condition. According to a study out of the University of South Florida in Tampa, older adults who had diabetes and high blood sugars performed worse on memory tests at the start of the study and showed a greater decline in memory by the end of the study compared to older adult without diabetes.
What’s behind the memory decline in diabetes?
Previous studies have shown that people with Type 2 diabetes have an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is a kind of dementia that causes issues with memory, thinking, and behavior. It’s progressive and irreversible, and it eventually destroys a person’s ability to carry out even the simplest of tasks.
While memory loss is a key feature of Alzheimer’s, there are differences between the memory loss that occurs with aging and memory loss due to Alzheimer’s. However, both are more likely to occur in people with Type 2 diabetes. Researchers think that damage to blood vessels, which can occur in diabetes, is what can lead to cognitive problems and vascular dementia. It’s also possible that high blood sugar levels cause damage in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s involved in memory. Actually, high blood sugars appear to be detrimental to brain health, in general. But even people whose diabetes is in good control are more likely to experience memory problems and impairments in cognitive function.
It’s also worth noting that having too many very low blood sugars (if you’re at risk for lows) may potentially also affect your memory and cognition. The goal is to stay on an even keel.
Beating the odds
Fortunately, it’s not all gloom and doom. While there’s no guarantee that you can completely prevent having memory problems later in life, there are some steps you can take to “stay on your game” and keep your memory in good shape.
1. Aim for control. In the study mentioned above, older adults who had higher HbA1c levels showed larger declines in memory. The reality is that keeping your blood sugar and HbA1c levels as closely within your target range as possible can do more than keep your eyes, heart, nerves, and kidneys healthy — doing so keeps your brain function healthy, too, and that can translate into staying as sharp as possible as you get older. If your control isn’t where you and your health-care team feel it should be, explore your options: improving your food choices, becoming more active, and/or increasing or changing your diabetes medication are all considerations.
2. Keep on learning. A lot of us probably couldn’t wait to finish up with school and all of the homework and exams that came with it. But learning should keep happening long after we graduate from high school or college. It’s thought that constantly learning helps to maintain brain cells and improve communication between those cells. Not excited about going back to school? No worries. Learning doesn’t have to mean hitting the books. The point is to keep challenging yourself to try and gain different skills — picking up a new hobby, taking a cooking class, and attending lectures are just some of the possibilities. Keep those brain cells active!
3. Repetition is key. Worried that you can’t remember someone’s name or that you’re starting to forget what you needed at the grocery store? Repeat it out loud (over and over several times, if you need to) or write it down. Doing so reinforces the connection.
4. Socialize. Isolating yourself can lead to depression and loneliness, and it doesn’t do so much for your memory, either. Take advantage of opportunities to interact with people whenever you can.
5. Stay organized. If you’re constantly searching for the car keys or can’t remember where you last saw your blue sweater, it may be because you need a better system of getting and staying organized. Use a calendar or a smartphone app to help you remember appointments. Make a point to place your keys, wallet, and glasses in a designated place. Put things away in the same place that you found them to help you find them next time.
6. Get enough sleep. Sleep is important for so many things. We all need adequate sleep to help reinforce new skills that we learn and to solidify memories by transferring information from one part of the brain to another and strengthening connections between brain cells. If sleep eludes you, talk with your health-care provider to help pinpoint the issue, and then take steps to address it.
7. Go Mediterranean. Despite the latest hype about saturated fat not being “as bad” as we once thought in terms of heart health (still not proven, by the way), studies do show that both saturated and trans fats can negatively affect thinking and memory. On the other hand, a more Mediterranean way of eating has been linked with lower rates of dementia and cognitive impairment. This eating plan is based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, and olive oil. And a little bit of alcohol can be helpful, too!
8. Take a hike. Or go for a walk. Physical activity helps you better manage your blood sugars, blood pressure, and cholesterol, and it can ward off dementia, too. Try to be active most days of the week.
9. Stop smoking. There’s nothing good about smoking, and not surprisingly, perhaps, smokers have a higher chance of getting Alzheimer’s than nonsmokers. Now’s the time: If you smoke, make a plan to quit.
People diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes have many athletic role models to look up to, says Amy Mercer. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in later today to meet Team Novo Nordisk cyclist Becky Furuta.
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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.
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