Written by Diana Licalzi, MS, RD
Diabetes is a serious disease having many well-known, potentially debilitating outcomes such as heart disease, vision loss, and stroke. To that unsettling list, we must consider adding cognitive decline and dementia.
A recent pooled analysis of 14 studies examining data from 2.3 million individuals found that those with type 2 diabetes face a 60% greater risk for developing dementia compared to those without diabetes.
In essence, diabetes is simply the presence of too much glucose in the bloodstream. Excess glucose is toxic to nerves, cells, and blood vessels, causing inflammation and ultimately, if left untreated, permanent damage. The brain, like every other organ in the body, depends on healthy blood vessels to deliver oxygen-rich blood to enable it to perform its various functions.
During increased periods of intellectual engagement, there is an increase in the flow of oxygen-rich blood in the areas of the brain that are being activated. Individuals with type 2 diabetes have a marked reduction in the flexibility in the blood vessels, which impacts the ability of these vessels to accommodate this increased blood flow.
Damaged blood vessels and insufficient oxygen reduce the brain’s effectiveness, manifesting itself initially as memory loss and diminished cognitive function and increasing the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and vascular dementia. And when your brain receives insufficient blood, brain cells may also die.
How to reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you have diabetes
For those without diabetes:
We become more susceptible to developing type 2 diabetes as we age, especially after age 45. However, if you can establish healthy habits early in life, you can lower your risk for diabetes and protect your brain from cognitive decline.
For those with prediabetes:
If you have prediabetes, you can significantly reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes by making lifestyle changes. Adopting healthy eating habits and engaging in regular physical activity will prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes and protect your brain accordingly. For more information on how to reverse prediabetes, read Prediabetes Treatment: How to Avoid Type 2 Diabetes.
For those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes:
If you already have diabetes, the prescription for reversing it---lifestyle management----is similar as for prediabetes. Follow a healthy eating plan like the Mediterranean diet, a plant-based diet, or the DASH diet, maintain a healthy weight, stay physically active, and manage stress.
Stop smoking if you smoke and if you choose to drink alcohol, drink in moderation. If these interventions are made before the symptoms of dementia are apparent, then the probability increases of preventing cognitive decline and dementia altogether.
Does low blood sugar damage the brain?
In the absence of making fundamental dietary and lifestyle changes, controlling blood sugar becomes vital. As discussed above, high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) is problematic for the brain, but so too is insufficient blood sugar (hypoglycemia), i.e., levels below 70mg/dl.
Unlike high blood sugar, which affects the brain over time, the symptoms of low blood sugar often appear immediately in the form of dizziness, irritability, and difficulty walking and talking. If the deficiency is severe enough, it may cause you to have seizures, pass out, or put you in a coma. Some people who have low blood sugar will not experience any symptoms. This makes early treatment difficult. That is why it is essential to monitor your blood sugar levels regularly and keep them as close as possible to the target range assigned by your doctor.
It is not well understood whether low blood sugar causes harm to the brain over the long term, but some research links it to depression, memory loss, and shortened attention span.. In summary, the measures for ensuring a healthy brain are much the same as those needed for a healthy body. Diabetes harms both, and therefore must be controlled or, ideally, reversed.
9 ways to protect your brain from type 2 diabetes
1. Keep your blood sugar within your target range
If you are not sure whether you are where you need to be, consider using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that will eliminate the uncertainty. If your insurance doesn't cover a CGM, we recommend Nutrisense Continuous Glucose Monitor. You can use code REVERSINGDIABETES at checkout for a discount.
2. Eat a diet rich in fiber, fruits, and vegetables
Even if your glucose levels are within the prescribed range, your prediabetic or diabetic condition will likely be improved by increasing plant-based foods in your diet.
3. Exercise regularly
Moderate activity offers many benefits, including increasing insulin sensitivity, helping you lose weight, reducing high blood pressure, and lowering cholesterol levels.
4. Adjust your medicine, if required
Even if you are taking many healthful steps to combat diabetes, beneficial outcomes will take some time. If you are having any adverse effects during this period, check with your doctor to see if any changes are needed to your medication.
5. Maintain a healthy weight
Use a scale regularly to track your progress. If you are taking some of the steps above, you are likely to bring your weight under control.
6. Abstain from alcohol or drink in moderation
Moderate amounts of alcohol may cause blood sugar to rise, but excess alcohol may cause it to drop to dangerous levels. Besides alcohol contains a lot of calories that make weight control more difficult. To learn more about our recommendations regarding alcohol, check out our blog titled "Smarter Choices for Drinking Alcohol with Type 2 Diabetes."
7. Stop smoking
Nicotine increases insulin resistance, and other chemicals in tobacco cause inflammation, further causing your cells to stop responding to insulin. Research indicates that smokers are 30 to 40% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than non-smokers.
8. Manage stress
When you are stressed, your body releases hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) you’re your bloodstream that may increase blood glucose levels. If you are already struggling to maintain/lower your glucose levels, then stressful events will make your job more difficult.
9. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have
While nutrition can play a large role in controlling and reversing diabetes, in the absence of such measures, medicines may be needed to prevent adverse health conditions from developing. Consult with your doctor on a regular basis if you have prediabetes or diabetes.