Aging is a part of life. But factors that are often associated with aging, including mental decline, are scary to think about. No one wants to become forgetful or worse, develop Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. And unfortunately, people with diabetes are at risk of developing cognitive impairment. Luckily, there are steps that you can take to help your brain stay healthy and hopefully ward off mental decline.
Diabetes and cognitive impairment
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) defines cognitive impairment as “when a person has trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life.” Cognitive impairment can be mild, where a person may notice some change in cognitive function but can still do everyday activities. It can also be severe, in which a person loses the ability to understand the meaning or importance of something as well as the ability to live independently.
Why are people with diabetes at risk of cognitive impairment?
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are several reasons:
- Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, which damage blood vessels. Blood vessels in the brain that are damaged can contribute to cognitive impairment.
- Too much insulin can cause changes in the chemicals in the brain, contributing to cognitive impairment.
- High blood sugars lead to inflammation, which can damage brain cells and cause dementia.
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Protecting your brain
You take steps to keep your heart healthy; make sure to do the same for your brain. Here’s how:
Research shows that people who stay physically active have a lower chance of having a decline in their mental function, and they have a lower risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease, likely due to an increased blood flow to the brain. Exercise reduces inflammation in the brain and protects existing brain cells while promoting the growth of new ones.
A Mediterranean-style eating plan can help your heart and your brain. This eating style focuses on vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, legumes, and olive oil. Brain-boosting superstar foods include:
- Leafy green veggies, such as spinach and kale, as well as broccoli and cabbage
- All types of berries, including blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries, as well as cherries
- Fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, sardines, herring, and tuna
- All types of nuts, especially walnuts
- Coffee and tea, which contain substances that promote brain health
Not surprisingly, the same foods that can hurt your heart aren’t good for your brain, either. Processed foods, including chips, sweets, cold cuts, and fast foods, and refined carbs like white bread and white pasta, are culprits.
Try to include a vegetable or fruit (ideally, both) at each of your meals and at snack time, too.
Lower your blood pressure
People with diabetes are prone to having high blood pressure, which, if not controlled, can lead to cognitive impairment later in life. Losing a little bit of weight, eating those fruits and veggies, limiting sodium, watching the alcohol, and staying active all play a role in blood pressure control. Also, if your doctor has prescribed blood pressure medicine, take it. If you have side effects, let your doctor know.
Consider checking your blood pressure regularly with a home blood pressure monitor, especially if your blood pressure tends to go up when you see your doctor.
Manage your blood sugars
Keeping your blood sugars and A1C as close to your target as possible can help minimize cognitive impairment. As with high blood pressure, a healthy eating plan, weight loss, physical activity, and taking medicine as prescribed can help.
Check your blood sugars regularly, ideally, at least twice a day if you have type 2 or at least four times a day if you have type 1 — check with your doctor about what frequency is best for you. Keep track of your readings and show them to your doctor or diabetes educator at every appointment.
Get enough sleep
Sleep helps to support brain function by clearing out toxins that can build up, and by processing information and consolidating memories. Aim for about eight hours of sleep each day, and do your best to get on a regular sleep schedule.
Try to relax before you go to bed. Read, take a bath or shower, or listen to soothing music.
Challenge your brain
Keep your brain mentally active. Doing so helps create new connections between nerve cells and may help create new cells. Think of your brain as a muscle that needs exercise. Reading, doing crossword puzzles, taking a course, learning how to dance, drawing, or doing carpentry are just some of the ways to keep you mentally stimulated.
To get started, try brushing your teeth or holding your fork with your opposite hand. It won’t be easy, and that’s the point — you’re giving your brain a challenge!
Want to learn more about maintaining cognitive health with diabetes? Read “Nine Tips to Keep Your Memory With Diabetes,” “Keeping Your Brain Strong With Diabetes” and “Memory Fitness: How to Get It, How to Keep It.”