Your sugary sweet diet may boost your risk of Alzheimer’s

A care giver holds the hand of her husband, an Alzheimer's patient.
A care giver holds the hand of her husband, an Alzheimer's patient, in San Francisco, on Sept. 1, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP

High blood sugar levels and a sugar-laden diet have been concerns for obesity and diabetes, but new research is warning that insulin resistance may increase your risk of memory issues and Alzheimer’s disease.

American scientists out of Iowa State University say that they’re the first to look at insulin resistance in middle-aged people to identify links in blood sugar levels and memory decline.

About 150 people – their average age was 60 – had their brains scanned. The group was at risk for Alzheimer’s, but showed no signs of memory loss.

The brain scans picked up on if the volunteers with higher levels of insulin resistance used less blood sugar in parts of the brain that are most vulnerable to dementia. If their brains were using less blood sugar, they’re pouring out less energy to relay information, store memories and function, they suggest.

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READ MORE: What Alzheimer’s disease and heart health, diabetes have in common

“If you don’t have much fuel, you’re not going to be as adept at remembering something or doing something,” Dr. Auriel Willette, a research scientist at the university’s Food Science and Human Nutrition department, said in a statement.

“This is important with Alzheimer’s disease because over the course of the disease there is a progressive decrease in the amount of blood sugar used in certain brain regions. Those regions end up using less and less,” Willette said.

Insulin resistance is typically tied to people who are grappling with weight issues, pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes.

In the study, Willette and his team zeroed in on the hippocampus, which is used for learning new things and encrypting information to long-term memory. It’s also the part of the brain that deals with shrinkage due to Alzheimer’s disease.

READ MORE: Trouble with memory, thinking could predict Alzheimer’s 18 years before diagnosis

The scientists say that their findings are key to preventing the onset of the disease and that their results apply to any age group. Screen overweight patients for insulin resistance to monitor for risk of diabetes, heart disease and memory issues, they suggest.

Treatment to keep chronic disease at bay could also start earlier on – exercise and improving on meal choices are a good start, they say.

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“We are terrible at adjusting our behaviour based on what might happen in the future. That’s why people need to know that insulin resistance or related problems with metabolism can have an effect in the here and now on how they think, and it’s important to treat,” Willette said.

Willette says his next steps are to follow the trajectory of those who are at-risk through different stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s to see what happens as their cognitive function slows.

READ MORE: Women make up 72 per cent of Alzheimer’s patients, Alzheimer Society of Canada says

His full findings were published this week in the journal Neurology. They trail previous studies that have already warned that a sugary sweet, fat-laden diet can tamper with productivity, memory and even mood.

Last year, global health officials warned that while Alzheimer’s is a disease that afflicts the brain, its risk factors mirror heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

“From a public health perspective, it is important to note that most risk factors for dementia overlap with those for other major non-communicable diseases,” Marc Wortmann, Alzheimer’s Disease International’s executive director, said.

“The takeaway here is that there are things you can do to increase your brain health and those are the same things that are good for your heart,” Wortmann told Global News from London, England.

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READ MORE: Half of Canadians with dementia wait too long for diagnosis, Alzheimer Society warns

Diabetes can increase the risk of dementia by 50 per cent. Obesity and lack of physical exercise are also risk factors for diabetes and high blood pressure. In turn, they’re also risk factors for dementia.

About 747,000 Canadians already have Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia – that’s expected to double to 1.4 million in less than 20 years.

READ MORE: Brain exercise trumps medication in maintaining seniors’ cognitive health: study

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. It affects memory, thinking and behaviour.

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