Doctors have known that having type 2 diabetes raises the odds for developing dementia. Now, new research suggests that the age at which your diabetes is diagnosed makes a difference in your risk. The longer you have diabetes, the greater your chances of having problems with thinking skills and memory down the road.
That’s worrying because the average age of people diagnosed with diabetes has been going down recently and the number of younger people with diabetes is going up.
The new data come from a study of more than 10,000 people who were 33 to 55 years old back in 1985. Scientists have followed these volunteers for almost 3 decades by checking their medical records every 5 years.
The researchers found that people who had diabetes were 3½ times more likely to develop dementia than those without diabetes. But the odds were worse if diabetes started early.
For people aged 70 who had diabetes diagnosed in their 60s, the risk wasn’t very different from people who didn’t have diabetes. But getting diabetes before age 60 doubled the risk for dementia. For every 5 years with diabetes, the risk increased by 24%.
Here’s another way to think about it: For every 1,000 people without diabetes, 9 people got dementia. But for people diagnosed with diabetes in the previous 5 years, the number of those who later developed thinking and memory problems was 10. Of those who got diabetes 6 to 10 years earlier, 13 developed dementia. And among people who got diabetes more than 10 years earlier, 18 developed dementia.
People with dementia have problems with at least 2 different brain functions, such as memory, problem-solving, and even speaking to others. These problems can greatly interfere with daily life and can lead to the need for nursing care.
How does diabetes lead to dementia? There are several theories.
It may be due to the effects of diabetes on the heart. High blood pressure and heart disease can cause strokes—and strokes can lead to dementia.
Plus, people with diabetes often have periods of low blood sugar. This can harm the hippocampus, the brain region most important for memory.
And it may be that diabetes causes Alzheimer’s disease—a type of dementia—all by itself. It turns out that insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar, is involved in creating the plaques and tangles in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. That’s why some experts have called Alzheimer’s “type 3 diabetes.”
With this in mind, preventing or controlling your diabetes becomes even more important. You can benefit by following these steps:
Eat the Mediterranean diet.
In a study comparing different diets, the Mediterranean diet came out on top for helping people manage diabetes. It features lots of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, and seeds; lean types of protein like fish and poultry; low fat milk and other dairy items; and limited amounts of added sugar and salt.
Research shows physical activity can prevent or delay diabetes. Try to exercise 30 minutes a day for at least 5 days of the week. Just taking a walk helps!
Stay at a healthy weight.
According to one study, people who lost 10% of their body weight or more doubled the chance of reversing their diabetes.
Research shows that smoking tobacco increases the risk of diabetes.
Adopting these measures can protect yourself from diabetes and its complications along with the negative effects on your brain—all at the same time.