Nearly 37 million Americans have diabetes (about 1 in 10), and approximately 90-95% of them have type 2 diabetes. Unlike type 1 diabetes, which is a genetic condition that often occurs early in life, type 2 diabetes is mainly lifestyle-related and develops over time. People who are middle-aged or older are at greater risk for type 2 diabetes, but an increasing number of children, teens, and young adults are also developing this condition. When diabetes is not managed, it can cause severe damage to brain and human organs such as heart, blood vessels, eyes, and kidneys.
Recent research suggests that type 2 diabetes risk may be associated with Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest daily living activities. Most people living with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, and people with diabetes may be at even greater risk for Alzheimer’s.
In this post, we’ll provide an overview of Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes, including how these two conditions are associated with each other, and how to reduce the risk of developing these two conditions.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, meaning symptoms gradually worsen over years. It can slowly erode a person’s cognitive skills like memory and thinking skills. Eventually, symptoms become severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.
One of the first signs is difficulty remembering newly learned information. An individual may forget important dates or events, ask for the same questions repeatedly, and increasingly rely on memory aids.
Another early sign of Alzheimer’s is the declining ability to navigate. People may wander and get lost even when they are in a familiar setting.
Other symptoms of early stages of Alzheimer’s include a decline in thinking, such as finding the correct words, vision/spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment.
Alzheimer’s Risk Factors
Age: Age is the greatest known risk factor. Approximately 6.5 million Americans who are 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s in 2022 and 73% of these individuals are 75 or older.
Genetics: Studies have shown that if a person has a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s, they are more likely to develop the disease.
Older Black adults are about 2x as likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other dementias than older, non-Latina/o White adults.
Older Latina/o adults are about one and 1.5x as likely to have Alzheimer’s as older non-Latina/o White adults.
Researchers are still trying to figure out the exact reasons why the racial disparity exists. One possible factor is that high blood pressure and diabetes are more prevalent in the Black American community, and diabetes is more prevalent in Latina/o communities.
What is Type 2 Diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes occurs when a person’s body has difficulty regulating and using sugar (glucose) as a fuel.
Glucose, the body’s main source of energy, comes directly from the foods people consume.
A hormone called insulin acts like a key to letting glucose into the cells in the body for use as energy.
In type 2 diabetes, cells won’t respond normally to insulin; this is called insulin resistance. Glucose that cannot enter the cells will circulate in the bloodstream and gradually too much glucose will buildup in the body. This high blood glucose level can cause serious health problems, such as heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease. In fact, some people can be living with type 2 diabetes for years and not know it because the symptoms of type 2 diabetes usually develop slowly.
Type 2 Diabetes Risk Factors
Age: Type 2 diabetes is more common in older adults who are over age 45, but recently the increasing number of children with obesity has led to more type 2 diabetes cases among younger people.
Weight: The most common risk factor is being overweight or obese. Recent studies suggest that people with obesity are up to 80 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those with a BMI of less than 22.
Activity: Other strong risk factors also include lack of physical activities.
Genetics: Researchers have found that while anyone can get diabetes, it is more likely to run in families.
Ethnocultural Background: Latina/o adults are almost twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes than as non-Latina/o White adults.
How to Reduce the Risk of Diabetes
Healthy lifestyle can help prevent type 2 diabetes and cut the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. A healthy lifestyle includes:
Eating healthy foods. Choose low-fat foods and consume more vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
Losing weight. If you have prediabetes, losing 7% to 10% of your body weight can help reduce the risk of diabetes. However, please consult with your physician about weight loss.
Getting active. Exercise 150 or more minutes a week, such as a walk, bicycling, running or swimming.
The Link Between Alzheimer’s and Diabetes
Heart Disease and Stroke.
Researchers have found that individuals with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke. This is because of the effects that diabetes has on the heart and blood vessels, which also relates to brain health. Damaged blood vessels in the brain may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease and high blood pressure are both associated with strokes that can also lead to dementia.
Another connection between diabetes and Alzheimer’s is insulin resistance.
When cells don’t respond normally to insulin, this will gradually cause an increasing amount of insulin and high blood sugar level, where too much insulin will unbalance the chemicals in the brain and high blood sugar can cause harmful fatty deposits in the blood vessels. These changes may elevate risk for Alzheimer’s.
High blood sugar is also tied to inflammation, which puts stress on the blood vessels. This may also damage brain cells and heighten Alzheimer’s risk.
Terms to Know
Dementia – A general term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that interfere with daily life.
Alzheimer’s disease – A common type of dementia in older adults.
Glucose – A type of sugar you get from foods you eat.
Insulin – A hormone that moves glucose from blood into cells for energy and storage.
Kidney disease – It develops when your kidneys are damaged and can’t filter blood the way they should.
Obesity – High level of body fat that can impact human health.