The link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s has been studied for decades, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that there was evidence to prove that diet, lifestyle, and functional medicine could influence blood sugar and insulin in ways that positively impact both conditions.
Let’s dive into how functional and integrative medicine can reduce risk factors for both Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes, and how even your daily choices–such as choosing an evening walk over watching TV–can decrease your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and reduce complications associated with diabetes.
The number of Americans with diabetes has more than doubled in the last two decades
There are more than 30 million people in the U.S.–that’s about 1 in 10–who have type 2 diabetes. And another 88 million have prediabetes. Many of these people are undiagnosed or unaware they have this condition. Diabetes is one of the most serious health problems in the modern world.
Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease haven’t always been thought of as similar conditions, but both of these chronic diseases affect the body in significant ways. Diabetes is also a risk factor for various other chronic issues–like digestive and kidney diseases–but can cause memory loss, dementia, and even death if not monitored and treated properly by a doctor or medical professional.
The issue is more common than we think, and it makes the link between diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s that much more significant for everyone.
Be proactive about preventing diabetes. Learn more about the integrative medicine difference at CentreSpringMD.
The Link Between Diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disorder that gradually destroys brain function and cognitive ability. It is a tragic disease that affects 5.8 million people as of 2020, but that number is projected to triple in the next 40 years.
There are a number of individual risk factors for Alzheimer’s, including genetic, lifestyle, and metabolic factors, but integrative medicine and new research now may have more clues about why those with diabetes or poorly controlled blood sugar are at increased risk for dementia.
A recent study examined the link between high blood sugar levels and dementia after studying those with diabetes. The interesting thing about this connection is that the issues can be explained–at least in part–by decreased insulin sensitivity (1).
Insulin is a hormone that is needed to move sugar into cells, where it can be used for energy. If this process becomes impaired (as in the case in those with type II diabetes) blood sugar–or blood glucose–builds up and cells are unable to use glucose properly, leading to damage or death of brain cells. This is known as brain insulin resistance.
The connection between insulin resistance and dementia in adults over 60
Insulin resistance isn’t an uncommon issue–especially in the U.S. Even without a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, it’s estimated that 1 in 3 adults has some level of insulin resistance, and this also affects the brain. This means that cells and tissues aren’t able to use glucose for fuel like they once could. And as you might expect, this decline in insulin sensitivity has its downsides.
Adults with type 2 diabetes are at higher risk for developing a certain kind of dementia–known as vascular dementia–which occurs as a result of blood vessel damage contributing to blocked blood flow to the brain.
One study found that adults with poor glycemic (blood glucose) control had an almost 2-fold greater chance of developing dementia after the age of 60 (2). Similarly, a study published in 2021 showed that earlier onset of diabetes is associated with a greater risk of subsequent dementia (3).
Medical experts are still working to fully understand why this occurs, but one theory is that chronically high blood sugar increases production of a harmful protein in the blood called advanced glycation end products or AGEs. A recent study identified AGEs as playing a role in the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (1).
Insulin resistance may also impact buildup of a certain protein in the brain, called beta amyloid, which is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
Diabetes increases protein deposits that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease
As the body ages and becomes less efficient at metabolizing sugars, insulin resistance can become more common. What’s interesting is that research has shown a link between decreased levels of sugar metabolism in the brain and deposits of amyloid beta protein–which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease (4).
Diabetes is also associated with increased oxidative stress, which can make cells insulin resistant by essentially “turning off” insulin receptors on the surface of the cell (5). This further contributes to metabolic syndrome that’s a major risk factor in a host of other chronic diseases.
Diet, Sugar, and Amyloid-B Plaque
Two recent studies have shed light on how diet affects the health of the brain. In both, healthy people in middle age followed a Mediterranean diet vs. a group that did not follow it as closely. Results showed less atrophy (loss of brain cells) on MRI scans and decreased accumulation of beta amyloid protein than is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease in the group that ate a Mediterranean diet (6,7).
This diet is generally high in healthy fats like olives, includes a varied amount of vegetables and fruits, adequate proteins, and is low in sugar.
We have limited data about brain health in people who are young and healthy, but these findings show that age-related cognitive decline is likely sped up when eating a more Westernized diet.
This isn’t to say that everyone who has insulin resistance or type II diabetes will develop dementia, but it does show how closely related these conditions can be.
For those who have been diagnosed with either of these diseases, it’s important to have regular checkups and screenings for better management and treatment of both medical issues. It is also a good idea to keep track of blood sugar levels regularly as well as maintain a healthy diet that will lower insulin resistance in the body.
Learn more: Nutrition counseling with Integrative Medicine
Diabetes and high blood sugar increases other types of cognitive decline
Many people with diabetes have brain changes that are hallmarks of both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
Data suggests that narrowing of the arteries supplying blood to the brain may lead to vascular dementia in patients with diabetes.
These changes are also associated with other types of cognitive decline like mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
Symptoms of MCI can often be easy to miss, as thinking skills often remain normal, but sufferers may experience lapses in memory or the ability to complete daily tasks.
As the number of people with diabetes is increasing in many countries around the world, it’s important that patients are screened for cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and vascular dementia regularly so they can get treatment if needed.
Read more: Holistic Living for a Better Brain
Why we should consider integrative treatments in the fight against diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease
Functional medicine therapies can help to both prevent diabetes and reduce complications associated with type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. These therapies include exercise, dietary changes like increasing healthy fats and decreasing sugar, consuming more vegetables in the diet, weight loss, taking specific supplements for cognitive decline, hormonal balancing treatments to address insulin resistance issues–and more.
Many of these treatment approaches work in a similar way to maintain cognitive function and reduce risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Keep reading: 10 Simple Actions for Optimal Health
Tips for people with type 2 diabetes who are worried about developing Alzheimer’s disease
- Work closely with your integrative doctor to figure out the best ways for you to decrease risk factors like maintaining a healthy body weight, getting physical activity, and keeping up with any prescribed medications.
- Minimize stress when possible because it can also cause high blood sugar levels via oxidative stress and inflammation.
- Make sure to keep your brain active by reading, connecting with friends, maintaining hobbies, and learning new things to help you stay sharp.
- Stay up-to-date on dementia symptoms so you know what to watch for. Symptoms of mild cognitive impairment are often easy to miss. If changes are noticed make appointments with the appropriate doctors right away because treatment is more effective earlier rather than later.
- Go for a walk after dinner to improve insulin sensitivity and decrease blood sugar levels in the evening. Studies show an evening walk even improves blood sugar levels the following morning as well.
- Consume more healthy fats from avocado, coconut, nuts and seeds, olives and olive oil, ghee, and/or naturally-raised animal products.
- Eat plenty of vegetables in your diet, particularly leafy greens.
- Monitor blood sugar levels regularly and keep track of them with a health journal or app.
- Eat balanced meals and snacks. Eat healthy foods to maintain a body weight that is healthy for you. Avoid eating only carbohydrates or processed foods, as this can spike blood glucose levels and contribute to worsening insulin resistance.
- Avoid drinking to excess. This contributes to cognitive impairment and is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, vascular dementia, and harms brain health.
If you don’t have diabetes, it’s still a good idea to get your blood sugar or insulin levels checked, especially if you’re having trouble maintaining a healthy body weight, or are noticing signs of even mild cognitive impairment.
Cognitive Wellness with Integrative Medicine
Diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease are two of the fastest growing diseases in America. If you have diabetes, your risk for getting Alzheimer’s is much higher than if you don’t. These chronic illnesses have been linked to insulin resistance because it increases beta-amyloid deposits in the brain (which can lead to dementia). Functional medicine, along with a plan to eat healthy foods and change your daily habits may be able to help reduce risk factors for developing both Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes.
Is your blood sugar creeping up slowly, or are you noticing memory issues? Contact CentreSpringMD today and work with a qualified and caring provider to assess your cognitive and metabolic health. Intervening early is crucial, and making an appointment is quick and simple!