A Critical Connection

Growing evidence shows diabetes increases risk for dementia

By Candace Hoffmann

Researchers are beginning to see a connection between diabetes and types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. 

Anything that affects blood flow or causes inflammation can impact the brain and contribute to the changes in the brain proteins that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, Dr. Alireza Atri, director of the Banner Sun Health Research Institute, in Sun City, explains. 

“Diabetes works in probably both direct and indirect mechanisms to cause disruption in brain physiology and also in brain structure,” he says, adding that the brain is connected to the rest of the body through blood vessels, which bring nutrients and oxygen to the brain and also work to transport toxins, or as Dr. Atri calls them, “garbage” out of the brain. 

“Anything that hurts blood vessels, the brain garbage collection system and powerhouses of cells is bad for the brain and that’s where diabetes indirectly, along with a number of other things – high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, etc. – come in.”

The American Diabetes Association notes that diabetes increases a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease by 65 percent. However, lifestyle changes such as exercise and diet can reduced the risk.

Dr. Atri notes that these changes are supported by research and “generally they are activities, approaches and interventions to lower risk of damage to our blood vessels and brain and to promote ‘building’ of new, better, or stronger brain connections and capacities.”  These include: 

  • Managing stress and learning relaxation techniques.
  • Eating healthier. 
  • Controlling cerebrovascular risk factors: managing blood pressure, blood sugars/diabetes, cholesterol, weight/body composition; and avoiding head trauma, strokes and smoking.
  • Adopting a positive attitude and a life purpose.
  • Being socially and emotionally engaged.
  • Exercising your brain through education and activities (e.g. learning a new language or playing games that are “mentally effortful”) and engaging in lifelong learning.
  • Participating in research studies/programs that may lead to breakthroughs. Many studies are seeking healthy volunteers. These programs can be mentally stimulating and can track how you are doing over time.

Dr. Atri notes that being active, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet will have the greatest impact on reducing both your diabetes and dementia risks. 

“Whatever actions you take, the key is a willingness to carry them out consistently,” he says.

Dr. Atri will discuss the link between diabetes and
dementia at the Sun Health Diabetes Expo, 8:30 a.m. to noon, Thursday, March 7 at The Colonnade.

Boosting Brain Health

Experts say the best diet for brain health is the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, which is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the anti-hypertensive diet.

Do Eat:

  • Green leafy vegetables: At least six servings a week.
  • Other vegetables: At least one a day.
  • Nuts: Five servings a week.
  • Berries: Two or more servings a week.
  • Beans: At least three servings a week.
  • Whole grains: Three or more servings a day.
  • Fish: Once a week.
  • Poultry: Two times a week.
  • Olive oil: Use it as your main cooking oil.
  • Wine: One glass a day.

Avoid or Limit:

  • Red meat: Fewer than four servings a week.
  • Butter and margarine: Fewer than a tablespoon daily.
  • Cheese: Fewer than one serving a week.
  • Pastries and sweets: Fewer than five servings a week.
  • Fried or fast food: Fewer than one serving a week.

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