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Blood Sugar and Dementia Risk

dementiaBy Jacquie Eubanks BSN, RN

If you needed one more good reason to cut back on sugar in your diet, here it is.  A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that above normal blood sugar levels increase the risk factor for developing dementia even among those who do not have diabetes.  Researchers tracked the blood glucose levels of 2,067 members of Group Health, a nonprofit HMO, for seven years.  Some of the patients had type 2 diabetes when the study began, but most did not.  None had dementia.  Over the course of the study, about 25% of the participants developed dementia of some kind, primarily Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia.

“We found a steadily increasing risk associated with ever-higher blood glucose levels, even in people who didn’t have diabetes,” Dr. Crane said. Of particular interest: “There’s no threshold, no place where the risk doesn’t go up any further or down any further.” The association with dementia kept climbing with higher blood sugar levels and, at the other end of the spectrum, continued to decrease with lower levels.  This held true even with glucose levels considered relatively normal.  The normal range for blood glucose levels measured after an 8 hour fast is between 70 – 99 mg/dl.

The study showed that for people without diabetes whose average blood glucose level was 115 mg/dl the risk of developing dementia was 18% higher as compared to those with an average glucose level of 100 mg/dl.  For people with diabetes, whose blood sugar levels are generally higher, dementia risk was 40% higher for those with an average reading of 190 mg/dl compared to those with an average level of 160 mg/dl.  This study establishes for the first time a link between dementia and elevated blood sugars in the non-diabetic range.  Researchers concluded that any incremental increase in blood sugar levels is associated with a higher risk for developing dementia and that the brain is a target organ for damage by high blood sugar.

The study stopped short of proving that high blood sugar “causes” dementia, only that there is an association between the two.  That being said, it is still worth keeping your blood sugar within normal levels to try to avoid developing type 2 diabetes and a variety of health problems including heart, eye, kidney and nerve disease.  The good news is that blood sugar levels can be lowered by exercising and, if necessary losing weight.

 While a healthy diet would contain a significant amount of naturally occurring sugar, such as the amount found in fruits and grains, chronic consumption of sugary drinks, candy and sweets and processed foods is wreaking havoc with our health. Cutting back on processed foods, soda, bakery goods and highly refined grains can help, as can shifting to a healthier diet with lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.  If the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, is too daunting, even a little activity each day can make a big difference in lowering blood glucose levels.  Exercise allows your muscles to used stored glucose and use insulin more effectively.

Our brains need sugar every day to function.  In fact, the brain is totally dependent on blood glucose for its energy supply, as glucose is virtually the only fuel the brain uses.  Sugar is not the brain’s enemy, added sugar is.  Research shows that diets high in added sugar reduce the production of the brain chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF.  Low levels of BDNF impairs memory formation and learning.  Diabetics and pre-diabetics have particularly low levels of BDNF, and as the amount of BDNF decreases, sugar metabolism worsens, setting up a destructive cycle that’s difficult to reverse.  Research has also linked low levels of BDNF to depression and dementia.

What this study and other research strongly suggest is that we are seriously damaging ourselves with processed foods high in added sugar, and the damage begins in our brains.  Chronic added sugar consumption can be seen in the same damaging light as smoking and alcoholism.  It would be wise to limit sugar consumption to less than 25 grams per day, especially for people showing signs of metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, such as those with obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  Remember, what’s good for the brain is also good for the heart.  Keeping blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels in check, maintaining a healthy weight, and keeping tabs on added sugar, can keep the brain, the heart and their vessels in good working order. 

Good Sugar by Dr. Wilson’s Original Formulations –  This is a completely natural formula containing only nutrients and botanical substances that support the healthy functioning of your body’s own processes and help to normalize blood sugar imbalances.

GlucoBalance by Biotics Research –  Special, targeted supplemental support for individuals with undesirable blood sugar levels who may have special dietary needs for higher amounts of important micronutrients.

Wellness Essentials Healthy Balance (formerly Blood Sugar Support) by Metagenics –  Formulated to target unique nutritional needs to help maintain healthy blood sugar levels already in the normal range when taken as part of a healthy diet.