November is National Diabetes Month, highlighting a disease that hits close to home for too many Americans, including me. When I was just 11 years old, my grandmother moved in with us. She had Type 2 diabetes and was morbidly obese, legally blind, and no longer healthy enough to live independently. She needed daily insulin shots to manage the disease, and I was the one who had to give her those injections. That’s not a job any child should have to do, but I know I’m not the only one who has had to care for a relative who is suffering from this debilitating disease.
According to stats issued by the U.S. government alongside the declaration of November as National Diabetes Month in 2021, more than 34 million American adults currently have diabetes, and an estimated 88 million more may be at risk. National Diabetes Month was created to “draw awareness to all forms of this dangerous condition—including Type 1, Type 2, gestational diabetes, and prediabetes—and recommit ourselves to finding a cure,” the declaration stated.
While certain side effects of diabetes are well-known—such as an increased risk for heart disease, blindness, and kidney failure—many people aren’t aware of the effects it can have on the brain. For example, diabetes increases the risk for memory problems, Alzheimer’s disease, and other types of dementia.
Both my husband, Daniel, and I know firsthand how destructive this disease can be. As my grandma aged, her health declined due to the effects of diabetes. She eventually needed help walking and showering and hardly ever left her room. We’ve both seen how devastating diabetes can be on one’s health, happiness, and family members. The good news is, diabetes can be prevented—in some cases, even reversed—through simple lifestyle changes.While certain side effects of diabetes, such as an increased risk for heart disease, are well-known, many people aren’t aware of the effects it can have on the brain. Diabetes increases the risk for memory problems, Alzheimer’s disease,… Click To Tweet
How Diabetes Impacts the Brain
As a quick refresher, diabetes is a condition that occurs when the body’s blood sugar levels are chronically too high. This happens when the body either does not produce enough insulin (the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels), which causes Type 1 diabetes, or when the body does not use insulin efficiently, a characteristic of Type 2 diabetes. Prediabetes means that blood sugar levels are higher than normal—usually a precursor to developing Type 2 diabetes. And gestational diabetes is a phenomenon that develops in some women during pregnancy.
In terms of their effects on the brain, both Types 1 and 2 damage blood vessels, which then causes harm to the body’s organs, including the brain. Brain SPECT imaging studies have shown that diabetes has been associated with decreased blood flow to the brain (the top brain imaging predictor of future memory problems) as well as a smaller hippocampus, a brain region involved in memory formation. So it’s not surprising that there have been links between abnormal insulin levels and cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Even mildly elevated blood sugar levels and prediabetes have been associated with scary side effects like brain atrophy, memory problems, and dementia—and the higher the levels, the higher the risk. Then there’s the double whammy of “diabesity,” which is being overweight and having diabetes simultaneously. Research has shown that, among those with early-stage Type 2 diabetes, those who were overweight had more severe and progressive abnormalities in brain structures and cognition, compared to normal-weight study participants with Type 2.
Get Tested to Assess Your Diabetes Risk
If you are overweight or older (since age is a primary risk factor for diabetes), make an appointment with your healthcare provider to arrange lab tests that will help determine your risk. A test called hemoglobin A1c (also known as HbA1c) measures blood sugar levels over approximately 3 months, and you’ll want to test your fasting glucose and fasting insulin levels.
You can also measure your waist-to-height ratio easily at home. Simply use a tape measure and divide your waist size in inches by your height in inches. For example, someone with a 30-inch waist who is 5’4” (64”) tall would divide 30 by 64 to get a ratio of 46.8%. Less than 50% is considered healthy. Then, to calculate your body mass index, or BMI, all you need to know is your weight and height. An optimal BMI is 18.5 to 25; overweight is 25 to 30; and over 30 is considered obese. You can easily find your number using an online calculator.
Reducing Your Risk for Diabetes and Its Brain Impacts
If you find yourself with some alarming numbers in any of the above tests—or, for that matter, even if you don’t—it’s important to ensure you’re taking all of the preventative steps possible to achieve better health. Simple lifestyle changes, like losing weight, exercising more, and eating a healthier diet (with more fiber, vegetables, and fruit) are keys to keeping diabetes at bay. To lower your risk of diabetes and prediabetes, incorporate these helpful habits into your daily routine:
1. Hydrate with water (still or sparkling). Skip those sodas and sugar-laden energy drinks—it’s never a good idea to drink your calories. And, if you drink tea or coffee, choose decaf, or reach for green tea, which has numerous health benefits.
2. Banish sugar—including artificial sweeteners. Refined sugar causes spikes in blood sugar levels, leading to energy crashes, while artificial types have been linked to a higher risk of dementia. Sugar even depletes chromium and other vitamins and minerals in the body. Just say no!
3. If you need to lose weight, do so the healthy way—that is, slowly and steadily, through proper diet and exercise. This helps good habits stick. Eat low-glycemic, high-fiber, nutrient-dense foods, and stabilize blood sugar by eating small quantities of high-quality protein and some healthy fat (such as avocado, walnuts, or olive oil) as part of every meal. For exercise, get moving daily, and incorporate strength training in your routine.
4. Take a good multivitamin/mineral, as well as vitamin D, magnesium, and an omega-3 EPA/DHA supplement daily. Also consider supplementing with chromium picolinate, berberine, cinnamon and alpha-lipoic acid, all of which may have positive effects on blood sugar.
5. Fiber up! You’ll want to add fiber-rich foods to your diet (think broccoli, spinach, lentils, green peas, winter squash, cabbage, green beans, coconut, artichokes, chickpeas, and chia seeds). Avoid low-fiber foods like bread (both white and wheat), pasta, and white potatoes and rice—try protein-rich carbs like quinoa instead.
6. Spice up your life (and your diet) with additions like cinnamon and nutmeg. Cinnamon, for example, has been shown to lower fasting glucose levels, improve insulin sensitivity, and reduce those HbA1c test numbers.
Though National Diabetes Month is a great time to institute healthier habits, test our blood sugar levels, and examine our other risk factors like obesity, preventing diabetes through positive lifestyle changes is something we must commit to year-round. Protecting our health, families, bodies, and brains is, well, a no-brainer. Make sure you take this opportunity to minimize your risk of developing diabetes later in life—and spread the knowledge to your friends and family, too!
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