A longitudinal study, published last week in the journal Diabetologia, has found that people with high blood sugar had a faster rate of cognitive decline than those with normal blood sugar. The study followed 5,189 people over 10 years and alerts us to a crucial factor in premature brain deterioration.
Earlier studies investigated links between diabetes and Alzheimer's, and also carbohydrate-heavy diets and cognitive impairment, with one drawing the conclusion “high caloric intake has been associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment". The latest report adds to the body of existing research and is the first to firmly link high blood sugar specifically with cognitive decline.
What contributes to high blood sugar levels?
This shocking finding shines a necessary light on blood sugar and how we should manage it. It is important to understand what actually impacts our blood sugar levels. Some key contributors include:
- Stress: stress triggers an increase in blood sugar to ensure energy is readily available for action. Stress is more than just an uncomfortable feeling, it’s a complete chemical change in the body. Adrenaline rises, more glucose is released from the liver and cortisol levels increase making the body tissues less sensitive to insulin (the hormone which enables the regulation of blood sugar levels). Too much stress can alter the body’s release and regulation of glucose in the blood long term.
- Sleep: Insufficient sleep has been found to affect the body's hormone levels and ability to regulate and metabolize glucose.
- Exercise: Too little or too much excessive exercise, similarly to poor sleep and excessive stress, can also alter the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels.
- Smoking: Smoking has been found to make the body more resistant to the important functions of insulin in regulating blood glucose.
- Foods: Eating foods that are high in carbohydrates can contribute to high blood sugar levels. Digestible carbohydrates become broken down and enter the blood as glucose.
What does this mean for our cognitive function?
The decisions we make now can affect our future brain health. Worryingly, conditions such as Alzheimer's start years before patients have any symptoms of memory loss. It is a good time to consider fitness and diet habits holistically and how some habits may be contributing to high blood sugar levels, putting you at risk of cognitive impairment down the track.
How to make better choices for our brain health
- Eat right: The Mediterranean diet has been considered good for brain health, high in healthy unsaturated fats (olive oil, fish and nuts) which are linked to lower rates of both dementia due to Alzheimer's disease and mild cognitive impairment. Additionally a low-processed, anti-inflammatory diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and olive oil can help improve the health of blood vessels, reducing the risk for a memory-damaging stroke.
- Exercise regularly but not excessively: aim to create a manageable and achievable routine to keep the body moving and accustomed to activity. This will assist the body to effectively manage the glucose regulation process.
- Manage stress: consider how frequently you feel stressed and work to address the triggers of this stress. More than living more comfortably in the present, managing stress is also a proactive step for your cognitive health.
- Maintain adequate sleep: maintaining adequate sleep will assist you in both your regular exercise routine and managing stress. As a result your blood sugar regulation will benefit from the combined effects of a rested and healthy system.