Graham Beaton BHSc, ND
Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine

Diabetes is a prevalent chronic disease amongst Canadians. Currently in Canada there are approximately 1.8 million people diagnosed with diabetes. Moreover, it is expected that with demographic changes, such as an aging population and increasing obesity rates, the number of those diagnosed with diabetes in Canada will increase to 2.4 million in 20161.

Diabetes can cause damage to many organs in the body. For example, it is the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure and non trauma related amputations in Canadian adults. As well, diabetes dramatically increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, increases the risk of osteoporosis, affects thyroid function, digestive health, damages nerves and may increase the risk of depression. Additionally, diabetes appears to have an impact on the brain, increasing the risks of cognitive dysfunction (characterized by changes in memory, attention, processing speed, executive function (e.g., conceptualization, reasoning and memory tasks), and general intelligence scores), dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Diabetes mellitus is a group of disorders that are characterized by impaired glucose control, resulting in elevated blood glucose levels. This impairment is caused by insufficient production of insulin (a hormone that regulates blood sugar) by the pancreas, insulin resistance, or both.

Diabetes, Cognitive Dysfunction and Dementia
Diabetes has shown to be a risk factor for changes in cognitive function and for increased risk of dementia2. While the exact mechanisms that cause cognitive dysfunction are not fully understood, there are several mechanisms that are proposed to play a role. High glucose levels cause damage to the brain, as they have toxic effects on nerve cells, causing injury. Furthermore, high glucose levels stimulate an unregulated immune response in the brain which damages nerve cells, affecting brain function3.

In addition to blood glucose levels causing damage to the brain, insulin resistance can affect cognitive function and memory. The transmission of information between nerve cells is impaired with elevated glucose levels, further affecting memory. Moreover, blood vessels in the body, including in the brain, are affected by high glucose levels, which impairs the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to cells in the brain, causing damage4.

While diabetes has been shown to play a role in cognitive dysfunction and dementia, an important factor that mitigates the risk is achieving proper glucose control. In fact, for diabetic patients who are able to maintain glucose control, cognitive function is typically preserved5.

Diabetes and Alzheimers’s Disease
Diabetes has also been linked with increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease6. While a full understanding of this relationship is not known, it has been shown that there are changes in glucose utilization in the brain during initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease. These changes are exacerbated in diabetics who do not have proper blood glucose control and who have insulin resistance. In these individuals, elevated glucose and insulin resistance leads to further degeneration in the brain, causing Alzheimer’s symptoms to be apparent earlier, and prompting a faster rate of cognitive decline compared to non-diabetics (or diabetics with adequate blood glucose control).

As with cognitive dysfunction, proper glucose control has been suggested to lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease7.

If you diabetic, or if you are at risk of developing diabetes, it is important that you ensure that your blood glucose levels are properly controlled. Blood glucose control will not only decrease the risk of developing cognitive deficits associated with diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, but will also help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, blindness and other diabetes complications. As a naturopathic doctor, I work with individuals who are diabetic or at risk of developing diabetes to establish individual treatment plans that are designed to improve glucose control using nutrition and physical activity.

Graham Beaton is a Naturopathic Doctor in Ottawa.  He is in practice at Ottawa Collaborative Care Centres – 102 Lewis Street (Ottawa, Ontario). If you have questions about diabetes, vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or on how Naturopathic Medicine can help you, please call 613-290-6115.
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