Sugar, Diabetes, Alzheimer’s: Unraveling the Truth

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Recent studies have led to an interesting correlation between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. One prominent study (published online by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health) concluded that sugar consumption “correlated significantly” with diabetes, “independently of other socioeconomic, dietary and obesity prevalence changes.” In plain English, they found that the more sugar you consume and the longer you consume it, the higher your diabetes risk; and as sugar consumption drops, diabetes rates drop as well.

Type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM), the most common form, is caused by insulin resistance in peripheral tissues and is most frequently associated with aging, a family history of diabetes, obesity, and failure to exercise.

Diabetes can cause several complications, such as damage to your blood vessels. Diabetes is considered a risk factor for vascular dementia. This type of dementia occurs due to brain damage that is often caused by reduced or blocked blood flow to your brain.

Many people with diabetes have brain changes that are hallmarks of both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Some researchers think that each condition fuels the damage caused by the other.

Ongoing research focuses on confirming the link between Alzheimer’s and diabetes and understanding why it exists. The link between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s may occur as a result of the complex ways that type 2 diabetes affects the ability of the brain and other body tissues to use sugar (glucose) and respond to insulin.

Diabetes also may increase the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, a condition in which people experience more thinking (cognitive) and memory problems than are usually present in normal aging. Mild cognitive impairment may lead to Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Insulin helps cells take in the sugar they need to make energy. Diet-induced diabetes develops when your body “ignores” insulin (this is called insulin resistance), your cells stop taking in the necessary sugar for energy production, and you have too much glucose in your blood stream. This excess glucose can go on to damage your nerves and blood vessels.

This damage certainly extends to your brain: high blood sugar can cause inflammation that injures brain cells. Also, when your brain cells become insulin-resistant, the brain “starves:” you lose memory, become disoriented, and, according to the New York Times, “might even lose aspects of your personality.” Additionally, a lack of insulin in the brain may be linked to the form of protein-plaque associated with Alzheimer’s. In short, many scientists now believe that Alzheimer’s may be directly caused by sugar consumption.

Other Dangers of Sugar

The deeper science dives into the sugar bowl, the more danger it finds:

  • Sugar dumbs you down. 2012 UCLA study showed that rats fed a sugary diet had a decrease in brain energy metabolism and synaptic activity.
  • Oreos are as addictive as cocaine. One study (done by Connecticut College researchers) found that high-fat, high-sugar foods light up the same parts of the brain as highly-addictive drugs.
  • Sugar damages your heart. According to research published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine has found a direct, independent link between sugar overconsumption and heart disease. In a statement to CNN, the Sugar Association said there “are a lot of major flaws with the new study” and that “all-natural sugar has been consumed safely for centuries.” The study was intended to provide guidance to doctors and recommends that it is safest to consume less than 15% of their daily calories from added sugar (the equivalent of drinking one 20-ounce serving of Mountain Dew soda in a 2,000-calorie diet).
  • Healthy blood sugar levels = graceful aging. A 2013 study reported online in Neurology showed that higher blood sugar levels were associated with a decrease in memory recall and learning ability. It also suggested that maintaining healthy blood sugar levels—whether or not you’re diabetic—“could prevent age-related cognitive decline.”

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