If you’ve been paying attention to diabetes research lately, you might have noticed that there is a great debate raging among scientists. Is there a link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s? It might seem like not a terribly important question. However, it’s becoming much more important as scientists and doctors close in on a cure, or at least a better treatment, for both conditions.
Before looking at the medical literature to see if there really is a link or not, it’s important to understand why so much attention is being paid to diabetes and alzheimer’s and why it’s so divisive. To start, it’s important to note that while there are some treatments for both conditions, there is not a cure for either yet. Both are also fairly poorly understood, despite all of the research. Finally, an aging population in most developed countries is increasingly pushing the direction of research into areas that especially impact the elderly.
These factors have combined to make both conditions, and the relationship between them, front page news repeatedly. But how did the idea of a link between the two come up? It stems from one potential mechanism that is suspected to be a strong contributing factor to Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is immediately caused by a buildup of a substance called amyloid-β in the brain. This protein can clump together to form plaques in blood vessels carrying oxygen to the brain and eventually cut off all blood flow, much like cholesterol can cause plaques in arteries leading to the heart and cause a heart attack.
This is significant since one of the side effects of prolonged diabetes is a constriction or hardening of capillaries. While this is most often seen as damage to the eye or extremities, some scientists think that diabetes-related damage may speed up the onset of Alzheimer’s. They theorize that the damage to the blood vessels that can be caused by long-term diabetes may strongly contribute to either the buildup or the effects of amyloid-β plaque. In fact, some researchers even suggest that simply maintaining elevated blood sugar levels (even without having diabetes), may in fact increase the risks of getting Alzheimer’s at a younger age. The New York Times even called Alzheimer’s Type 3 diabetes!
If this were all there was to it, things would be relatively simple and straightforward. However, an increasing number of studies actually show that there is no significant link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Most of these studies are relatively new, and have not had a chance to be fully replicated or thoroughly tested, so it’s a little early to go ahead and call the two conditions unrelated, but it is enough to make the discussion a lot less simple than it was only a few short years ago.
So why is it important if diabetes can cause or speed up Alzheimer’s? Well, for starters knowing that one was more likely to get Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia could help people make more realistic and useful plans. It would also allow individuals at greater risk to begin anti-Alzheimer’s regimens sooner. While there is no cure for most forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, there are treatment plans that can slow down or hold off some of the worst effects.
Even if a link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s turns out to not exist, it never hurts to approach your diabetes treatment as if it does. What do we mean? Take extra care of yourself, especially if you have any predisposition towards Alzheimers, and talk to your physician about taking extra-firm control of your blood-glucose. If you aren’t keeping a regular exercise regime, start one. If you aren’t on a good diet, get on one. If you don’t test regularly or monitor and track your blood glucose level, do it! It’s in your hands, and it never hurts to make better choices!