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Diabetes & Dementia

November 28, 2018

You are likely aware about the increasing numbers of people who have diabetes or prediabetes. It’s a national healthcare crisis and seniors are not immune. About 25 percent of all seniors have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while half of all seniors have prediabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Links between Diabetes and Dementia

Diabetes complications include heart disease and damage to the nerves, eyes, kidneys and more. Now, researchers have also discovered links between diabetes and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia and the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, having high blood sugar levels over a long period of time can damage a person’s organs, including the brain. 

Though diabetes’ exact role in dementia development isn’t fully understood, the Mayo Clinic reports that diabetes can negatively affect the brain in many ways. For example, hypoglycemia – or low blood sugar – which often also occurs in people with diabetes, is known to cause short-term cognitive impairment and may also lead to longer-term problems like confusion and memory loss. 

Senior Woman Daydreaming

Types of Dementia and Their Relation to Diabetes

These are the most common types of dementia, especially in seniors:

Alzheimer’s disease: 

In people age 65 and older, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. While the exact cause is still unknown, plaques and tangles of protein are often found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. There may be a genetic component, but many scientists believe some cases of Alzheimer’s may stem from the complex ways type 2 diabetes affects the ability of the brain and other body tissues to use sugar (glucose) and respond to insulin. 

Vascular dementia: 

Diabetes is already known to damage blood vessels, so it’s a risk factor for vascular dementia. Brain damage is often caused by reduced or blocked blood flow to a person’s brain.

Lewy body dementia: 

Classified by abnormal clumps of protein in the brain, Lewy body dementia is one of the more common types of progressive dementia. It can occur with or without Parkinson’s disease. The link between diabetes and this type is still unknown, but many people have both conditions. 

Frontotemporal dementia: 

This group of diseases is characterized by the breakdown of nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. It may affect younger people than the other types. As with other types of dementia, the exact link with diabetes is unknown, but it’s not uncommon for someone with this type to also have diabetes.

Diabetes also may increase the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, classified by having more thinking and memory problems than usually occur with normal aging. Mild cognitive impairment may precede or accompany Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, or it may not progress. 

Reducing Risk Factors and Preventing Diabetes

While genetics may play some role in the development of both diabetes and dementia, there are significant risk factors present in many people who develop these conditions, including:


  • Diet high in sugar, simple carbohydrates and saturated fat
  • Diet low in fiber, lean protein, fruits and vegetables
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Physical inactivity
  • Tendency to be overweight or obese

Because lifestyle factors weigh heavily in diabetes development, there are things you can do to prevent prediabetes, reduce the risk of prediabetes progressing to type 2 diabetes, or help keep blood sugar under control if you or a loved one has diabetes.

A major study from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health, found “participants who lost a modest amount of weight through dietary changes and increased physical activity sharply reduced their chances of developing diabetes.” 

So, to reduce risk factors, what can you or your loved one do today?

Start with your diet. 

Fill your plate with vegetables, whole grains, beans, lean protein and dairy, and low-sugar fruit. Avoid or limit processed foods and anything with added sugar, like soda, candy and baked goods. Following the Mediterranean diet can help lower the risk if diabetes.

Stay active.

 Even if you haven’t exercised in years or are dealing with mobility issues, there are ways to get moving and get your heart rate up. Walking, water aerobics, resistance training, yoga and even household chores like vacuuming are all great choices.

Stick to water.

Water hydrates you best and drinking enough may help keep blood sugar under control and your kidneys healthy. Avoid high-sugar beverages like soda and juice.

Visit your doctor. 

It’s important to be aware of your blood sugar levels, and other health markers, so you can take action with lifestyle changes, insulin doses or even medication, as needed.


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