Mayo Clinic Health Library

Diabetes and Alzheimer's linked

Updated: 04-03-2013

Diabetes and Alzheimer's disease are connected in ways that aren't completely understood. Though not all research confirms the connection, many studies indicate that people with diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, are at higher risk of eventually developing Alzheimer's disease or other dementias.

Taking steps to prevent or control diabetes may help reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease and other complications.

Understanding the connection

Diabetes can cause several complications, such as damage to your blood vessels. Diabetes is considered a risk factor for vascular dementia. This type of dementia occurs due to brain damage that is often caused by reduced or blocked blood flow to your brain.

Many people with diabetes have brain changes that are hallmarks of both Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. Some researchers think that each condition fuels the damage caused by the other.

Ongoing research focuses on confirming the link between Alzheimer's and diabetes and understanding why it exists. The link between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's may occur as a result of the complex ways that type 2 diabetes affects the ability of the brain and other body tissues to use sugar (glucose) and respond to insulin.

Diabetes also may increase the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, a condition in which people experience more thinking (cognitive) and memory problems than are usually present in normal aging. Mild cognitive impairment may lead to Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.

Researchers continue to study the connections between diabetes and Alzheimer's, and potential ways to prevent or treat diabetes and Alzheimer's. For example, a study examined a medication used to treat type 2 diabetes to determine whether the medication also improves cognitive function in people with mild Alzheimer's disease. Results showed a positive change in cognitive function.

Reducing your risk of Alzheimer's

In research, working with your health care team to prevent diabetes or manage your diabetes has been shown to be an effective strategy to avoid or reduce complications. Managing your diabetes or preventing diabetes also may help prevent Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.

Preventing diabetes or managing it successfully may help you avoid other complications, such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Eye damage
  • Kidney disease
  • Damage to your nerves, which may cause pain in your feet or hands (diabetic neuropathy)
  • Digestive problems
  • Gum disease
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

You can take several steps to prevent or manage diabetes and avoid potential complications, including:

  • Follow your health care team's recommendations about the most appropriate plan for monitoring your blood glucose, cholesterol level and blood pressure.
  • Eat healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat milk and cheese.
  • If you're overweight, eat a healthy diet and exercise to lose weight. Obesity can lead to diabetes and other health problems.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
  • Brush and floss your teeth daily.
  • Examine your feet daily for sores.
  • Take any prescribed medications on schedule.

Small steps can make a big difference. In a large study funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, participants with blood sugar levels slightly above normal (prediabetes) cut their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by more than 50 percent.

Participants lowered their risk of type 2 diabetes by losing as little as 5 to 7 percent of their body weight and exercising for 30 minutes five days a week. That weight loss translates to 10 to 14 pounds for a 200-pound person.