Is there a link between having diabetes and getting dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease?
There is growing evidence the answer is yes.
Many experts have been investigating how diabetes or uncontrolled blood sugar may impact brain health.
We already know and have seen how elevated blood sugar damages our blood vessels, impacting other organs.
At the latest Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC), researchers presented information that family caregivers need to know about their new findings.
The Growing Connection
The Alzheimer’s Association has stated there is a growing connection between dementia and diabetes.
As a matter of fact, people with diabetes have an increased risk of cognitive decline and developing dementia compared to the general public. Several studies indicate that there is a 47% greater risk of any dementia, a 39% greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and a 138% increased risk of vascular dementia.
Diabetes raises the risk of heart disease and stroke causing harm to the heart and blood vessels. Damaged blood vessels in the brain may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
How might diabetes impair brain function?
It is thought that the brain depends on different chemicals which may be unbalanced by too much insulin (excreted in response to elevated blood sugar). Some of these changes may help trigger Alzheimer’s disease.
High blood sugar causes inflammation. This may damage brain cells and help Alzheimer’s develop.
Also, studies have found that people with high blood sugar levels had a dramatic increase in beta-amyloid protein, a protein toxic to cells in the brain.
Tips to Help When Dementia and Diabetes Occur
Complications from one disease process can influence the other when both are present in our senior loved ones. Treatment of one disease may mask the need for treatment of the other as well.
If your senior loved one has both dementia and diabetes, there are some strategies that you can employ to help them manage these chronic diseases.
- Treat the cognitive symptoms. There are medications (cholinesterase inhibitors) that should be given, especially as the disease progresses.
- Create an individual plan of care for your senior loved one. Each person with dementia is unique and there is no one size fits all intervention. Take into consideration family, cultural needs, preferences for care as well as priorities for care in the future. Your plan should also include ways family caregivers will get support so that they can manage the long-term journey of caregiving.
- Create your senior loved one’s plan for the future. Where will they live, how will they pay for their care, how will their finances be managed, what are their end of life wishes, have their legal documents been executed, and who will make decisions for them when they can no longer?
- Consider how technology and home care innovations help them live independently as long as possible. While technology won’t replace personal caregiving, it can improve outcomes and communication, especially during emergency situations. Telehealth can also make securing healthcare easier as the disease progresses.
- Manage diabetes by following the treatment plan. Controlling blood sugar to reduce inflammation and further damage becomes even more important when brain function is impaired.
- How will you protect someone with dementia? They are often the victims of scams, abuse and even self-abuse. They have more problem handling money, driving, handling unsafe objects such as guns, knives, or power tools in the home, and may wander away from home.
- Many older adults with diabetes are also overweight or obese. Their plan of care should include physical activity. Weight loss of as little as 5% can impact their blood sugar control favorably.
- Rapidly increasing confusion may be a sign of physical problems such as elevated blood sugar and should be investigated. It may not be related to the dementia. Treatment might resolve the increased confusion.
- At some point, the dementia will impede your senior loved one’s ability for self-care and management of their diabetes. It will also reduce their ability to understand their condition and why certain treatments are being done such as monitoring blood glucose and injecting insulin. How will you handle their resistance to life sustaining care? It will be helpful to maintain a routine for treatment so that they will be less likely to refuse care.
- Monitor your senior’s hydration and nutritional intake, as a failure to have an adequate intake in either case can worsen both conditions.
Learn All You Can
Family caregivers are encouraged to learn all that they can about the control of diabetes and the progression in all stages of dementia so that you can be ready to understand the changes you may observe.
Knowing as much as possible will help you be proactive and adjust your plan of care as needed in a timely way so that small issues don’t become big problems.