If you have diabetes, you are at an increased risk for a number of health problems. That’s why it is important for you to learn about the effects of diabetes, especially the effect it can have on your brain.

What the Studies Show

A number of studies reveal that diabetes contributes to aging the brain, leading to a decline in mental sharpness. A study of 20,000 adults ages 50 to 80 evaluated memory, information processing speed, and executive function skills (planning and organization). The results? People with type 2 diabetes scored significantly lower on these cognitive tests as compared to diabetes-free people of the same age, sex and education level. Information processing speed was seven percent lower, and executive function scores were 13 percent lower.

Further, there is an established link between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia. Diabetes is also considered a risk factor for a condition called vascular dementia, which can cause a decline in cognitive skills, including memory, reasoning, judgment and speech. It is the second-most common form of dementia. It is estimated that five to 10 percent of people aged 65 and older have vascular dementia.

The Effects of Diabetes on the Brain

Just like the rest of your body, your brain needs glucose to function. When glucose processing is impaired by diabetes, your glucose levels can be too high or too low, resulting in damage to the brain.

The longer your blood sugar levels stay too high (called hyperglycemia), the more likely your brain will be affected by systemic inflammation, which damages brain cells. The death of these cells, called neurons, alters your brain structure. Studies have found that people with type 2 diabetes have significantly less brain volume.  Part of this volume loss involves white matter in the brain, which is where the nerve fibers reside that send signals to other parts of the body.

When glucose levels are too low, symptoms appear in the form of confusion, anxiety and reduced mental clarity. Glucose levels that are too low (called hypoglycemia) can also destroy neurons.

What You Can Do

If you suspect you have diabetes (see symptoms below), consult with your physician.

Approximately 18.2 million people have diabetes, and almost one third (or approximately 5.2 million) are unaware they have it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2018, adults ages 45 to 64 received a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, including 706,000 new cases. For those over 65, 326,000 new cases were diagnosed in 2018.

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Feeling thirsty all the time
  • Fatigue
  • Cuts or wounds taking longer to heal
  • Blurred vision
  • Extreme hunger
  • Tingling, numbness, or pain in the hands or feet
  • Itching and yeast infections

The CDC suggests that if you have been diagnosed with diabetes, you meet with a diabetes educator for support and guidance.

Living a healthy lifestyle is extremely important for you if you have diabetes. The CDC also recommends the following:

  • Developing a healthy eating and activity plan
  • Testing your blood sugar and keep a record of the results
  • Recognizing the signs of high or low blood sugar and what to do about it
  • Monitoring your feet, skin, and eyes to catch problems early
  • Buying diabetes supplies and store them properly
  • Managing stress and deal with daily diabetes care

Your best defense against the damage caused by diabetes is to control your glucose levels, eat a healthy diet, exercise, control your weight, and follow your physician’s instructions.

In addition, continue to challenge yourself mentally — pursuing activities and interests that stimulate your brain and also provide opportunities for social interaction. Dealing with the effects of diabetes can cause depression, which makes it harder for you to manage the disease, do not neglect your emotional health.

Diabetes can lead to long-term problems. While you navigate your health journey, visit Bethesda’s Health and Wellness blog for more information.