Diabetes not only elevates blood sugar and blood pressure, it can also increase the likelihood of memory loss in middle-age adults. This is due to the damage in the memory storage unit in the brain — called the hippocampus — that shrinks in size over a long period of time, according to a recent Mayo Clinic study.
Dr. Rosebud Roberts, M.B., who is one of the researchers of the study, stated that people who had diabetes earlier in life are more likely to have brain damage than those who have the disease later in life. This degenerate process happens over a long period of time.
Memory loss and poor cognitive thinking have been associated with the effects of diabetes for many years in science and medicine. However, this new study provides solid evidence that explains why and how it happens over time.
A recent study that Roberts and her colleagues conducted was published in Neurology. It consisted of 1,437 participants with an average age of 80. After they were diagnosed as being cognitively normal, having mild cognitive impairment (MCI), or having dementia, the participants undergo a MRI scan to check for brain damage that could be signs of dementia. Afterwards, the participants’ medical records were reviewed to see if anybody was diagnosed with diabetes or high blood press when they were middle-agers, which ran between ages 40 to 64.
Researchers found that middle-agers who had diabetes had an average of 2.9 percent decrease in their brain size than those who didn’t have diabetes. Diabetics also had a smaller hippocampus — an average of 4 percent decrease in size than non-diabetics. Therefore, diabetics tend to lose their long-term memory and recall recent events, according to Roberts.
A previous German research in 2013, however, provided strong evidence that people don’t have to be diabetic to have memory loss. The study, which was conducted at the Department of Neurology and Center for Stroke Research Berlin, showed that middle-age folks and the elderly with chronic high blood glucose also exhibit similar memory loss and decrease in brain size as those with diabetes. They concluded that high glucose concentration could damage the structure of the brain cells.
Dr. Anges Flöel, M.D., who is part of the research team, stated that the hippocampus is vulnerable and sensitive to the imbalances of its metabolic supply — including glucose. High blood sugar levels may damage the brain cells’ outer membrane, which decreases the amount of communication levels between the cells and disrupt the communication process. Therefore, the process in which the hippocampus encode, store, and retrieve memory and process information would be endangered. High blood sugar can also damage the blood vessels of the brain, which decreases the amount of nutrients, blood, and oxygen flow to the brain cells, added Flöel.
Even though the Mayo Clinic study showed a relationship between diabetes and high blood press with memory loss and cognitive thinking among middle-agers, it doesn’t necessarily prove that there is a direct causation and correlation relationship.
Keith Fargo, Ph.D., the director of Scientific Programs & Outreach at Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago, Illinois, stated that anyone can be at risk dementia as long as they have a brain. Dementia can creep up and target anyone who doesn’t take care of themselves. Middle age is a time when taking care of the brain’s health is just as important as physical health.
Middle-agers with diabetes may not always be at high risk for memory loss. Adopting a more active and social lifestyle can help diabetics lower their risk of dementia so that they can continue to enjoy conversations with their friends and family without worrying if they will forget their names and faces tomorrow.
By Nick Ng