People with type 1 diabetes are living overall longer, healthier lives than in past decades, thanks to steady improvements in treating the condition. But achieving better blood glucose control can sometimes increase the risk of hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) — which is linked to a range of negative health outcomes, including greater difficulty with cognitive tasks in children. A recent study sought to find out whether harmful cognitive effects from hypoglycemia occur in older adults with type 1, as well — and the results show that it does.
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For the study, published in the journal Diabetes Care, researchers looked at how self-reported episodes of severe hypoglycemia — those requiring hospitalization — were linked to a range of cognitive abilities. Among 718 older adults (average age of 67) with type 1, 32% reported having severe hypoglycemia in the last year, while 50% reported having it in their lifetime. All participants were given a cognitive assessment.
Compared with those with no history of severe hypoglycemia, participants who had experienced it in the last year had significantly lower overall cognitive scores, as well as significantly lower scores in the specific areas of language, executive function (the ability to complete tasks) and episodic (short-term) memory. Participants with a lifetime history of severe hypoglycemia also had significantly lower executive function.
Participants with severe hypoglycemia in the last year were over 3 times as likely as those with no history of severe hypoglycemia to qualify as having impaired overall cognitive function, as well as to have impaired language abilities, based on their assessment.
These results highlight how important it is to avoid severe hypoglycemia in older adults with type 1 diabetes to preserve cognitive function, the researchers concluded. It’s possible that older adults are uniquely susceptible to cognitive effects from hypoglycemia, but more research is needed to understand the differences between younger and older adults in this area.