Controlling Blood Sugar May Help Preserve Your Memory

by | Jan 5, 2009

High blood sugar levels are known to accelerate aging and decrease longevity in many different species. Now it seems blood sugar may also be tied to how well you keep your memory as you age.

Aren’t you glad you have cut back on refined carbohydrates and sugars since you started reading this blog? I thought so!

A new study published in the December issue of the Annals of Neurology examined the effect of high blood sugar on the region of the brain responsible for memory formation, the hippocampus. Researchers examined patients with either diabetes or stroke (in other, non-hippocampus, parts of the brain) and determined that both groups had defects in the hippocampus compared to normal patients, but the problems were in different hippocampal subregions.

Patients with diabetes had defects in a part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus, which has been shown to be especially sensitive to aging and memory loss. Stroke patients had problems with a region of the hippocampus called CA1.

Diabetes is a disease that involves misregulation of blood sugar, so the scientists examined if blood sugar levels alone correlated with problems in the dentate. This is important because some patients that have not been diagnosed with diabetes may still have high blood sugar levels. The scientists did indeed find a correlation between high blood sugar and hippocampal deficits in the dentate gyrus. Interestingly, blood sugar levels were also linked to memory performance.

Correlational findings are very interesting, but it is easy to imagine situations that would give this result without there being a causative role for blood sugar in memory function. One reason this study is particularly compelling is because they repeated the analysis on rhesus monkeys and found the same relationship between blood sugar and hippocampal defects.
Even better, they were able to show a causative relationship between blood sugar regulation and dentate gyrus deficits in mice. In this experiment the scientists induced type 2 diabetes in the animals, then measured hippocampal function. Mice that could not regulate blood sugar had hippocampal deficits in the dentate compared to control mice.
Taken together, this study provides strong evidence that high blood sugar levels are related to hippocampal and memory dysfunction.

What does this mean for you?

This is actually great news for the rest of us because blood sugar is something we can self-regulate fairly easily.
The study’s principal investigator and professor of neurology at Columbia University, Dr. Scott Small says,”This would suggest that anything to improve regulation of blood glucose would potentially be a way to ameliorate age-related memory decline.”

That means both diet and exercise may work together to preserve memory function into old-age by controlling blood sugar.

“We had previously shown that physical exercise strengthens a part of the brain involved with aging but, at the time, we didn’t know why physical exercise would have this selective benefit,” Small affirmed. “Now we have a proposed mechanism. We think it’s because subjects who exercised had better glucose handling.”

Though the role of diet in hippocampal function has not been directly tested in humans, evidence is mounting that it is important for maintaining cognitive function and protecting against Alzheimer’s disease.


The best way to control your own blood sugar levels is to eat and live in a manner that improves insulin sensitivity. An added bonus is that you will probably lose weight, live longer and reduce your risk of a bunch of other diseases too, including cancer.

Sensitivity to insulin is affected by two dietary factors: 1) How much glucose is in your blood at any one time and 2), the composition of fat in your diet. It is also improved by exercise.

Keep these things in mind when you eat if you want to control and improve your insulin sensitivity:

  • Limit sugars and refined carbohydrates, including all white bread, white rice and pasta.
  • Choose whole, intact grain carbohydrates such as brown rice and oats.
  • Make vegetables the bulk of your diet.
  • Consider substituting legumes for carbs.
  • Reduce saturated fats from red meat and dairy
  • Eat more healthy fats from fish, olive oil and nuts.
  • Avoid processed foods with hidden sugars, yogurts and salad dressings come to mind.

Basically just eat real food and you’re on your way. And don’t forget to keep reading this blog to learn how to make healthy eating both easy and delicious.

Let me know which of the above suggestions you find the most difficult to follow and I may be able to give you a few pointers….

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11 Responses to “Controlling Blood Sugar May Help Preserve Your Memory”

  1. Matt Shook says:

    This is annother excellent post…thank you for sharing this imformation with us! It’s wonderful to read more reports extolling the virtues of maintaining a healthy diet.This study is actually really good news based off my diet…can’t wait to share it with others and hopefully inspire them to make a change in this direction.Quick question…how does raw honey and agave nectar factor in with insulin sensitivity? I know agave is promoted for its low glycemic index, and raw honey is supposedly the “healthiest” sweetener…but should we dramatically cut back these sugars? I know they’re both best used in moderation…but that may vary per person.Also, have you seen any studies on the effectiveness of cinnamon and maintaining blood sugar levels? I’ve seen some natropathic reports of patients with type 2 diabetes who were able to moderately “control” their blood sugar levels with daily cinnamon consumption. Not that cinnamon is a great substitute for a healthy diet and exercise…

  2. Darya Pino says:

    @MattI’m sure your blood sugar is wonderful, but you are right to question honey and agave syrup.The reason agave has a low “glycemic load” is because it has a very high fructose to glucose ratio, much higher than high-fructose corn syrup. It lends to lower glycemic index, but it is unclear if more fructose is beneficial or harmful. Personally I wouldn’t worry too much about it because the main problem with HFCS is its over use.Honey, raw or not, is healthier than pure sugar because of it’s other components that tend to be anti-bacterial. It is a nice alternative sweetener, but it is still a sweetener and will impact blood glucose. Best to use it sparingly, but again, I wouldn’t worry too much about it if you have an overall healthy diet.There is some data on cinnamon being helpful, but this is another one of those things where it is a small drop in a large bucket. How much cinnamon can a person really eat? If you like cinnamon, consider it one small step toward blood sugar control, though an overall healthy diet (that can be achieved in a million different ways) will get you where you need to be.Cheers!

  3. Healthyliving says:

    Interesting article. The case for refined sugar just gets worse and worse- implications in diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, changes in cognition….I wonder how many industrial food items that we consume on a daily basis have yet to be known damaging effects. And to think that sugar, basic table sugar, so white and pure, is so deadly…..

  4. NB says:

    So I guess the Chocolate Covered Sugar Bombs are no good? I think the implications of this to breakfast for schoolchildren is very compelling. I remember trying bamboozle my mom into buying lucky charms and frosted flakes for our breakfast, and then eating like 3 bowls of the stuff. Sad to think how much smarter I’d be if I had just eaten whole grains!

  5. Karin says:

    Thanks Darya, great post. I am usually pretty good about controlling my intake of sweet stuff; my daily routine is never that bad. But every once in a while (like every other day!) I somehow get my hands on something sweet to eat and I know its bad for me. What is your opinion about every-once-in-a-while binges on sugary stuff?

  6. Darya Pino says:

    @NBThere is a really interesting NYTimes article this week about children, breakfast cereals and what happens when parents are too restrictive with junk food. It is only a personal anecdote-type story, but I think there are some valid points in there. Fine line for sure. I TwEated about this a few days ago, but here is the link.—–@KarinTo me, “once-in-a-while” and “binging” are mutually exclusive concepts. I would definitely say that binging every once in a while is not okay. You want to avoid binging. However, indulging a bit every once in a while is good, precisely because it prevents binging. You have to work out for yourself where the balance is for you personally.

  7. Matt Shook says:

    @DaryaThanks for the clarification…and I agree that the cinnamon recommendation doesn’t get to the root of the problem.I think I see unhealthy mindsets towards ones diet as the biggest obstacle…and inspiring others to make a change is a very difficult task. Keep up your great work with this blog!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Great post, love the science!

  9. Darya Pino says:

    @ Matt & anonAwwww, thanks guys! You make me feel so loved!!

  10. Mike says:

    Wow, that bulleted-list at the end is a pretty good summary of how to eat healthy, right? If we could all just do that we’d be in pretty good shape, pun intended.

  11. Greg says:

    @DaryaI grew up with a best friend who’s Mom was a total health-Nazi: I would go on vacation with them and it was always super uncomfortable, because they would buy like one container of Pringles chips, but if you ate more than like 5 she would make some passive aggressive remark about it and made it feel really shameful. It made me totally despise her ‘healthy-eating’ and sent conflicting messages to us about healthy food. I will give it to her that she was always really healthy and in good shape, but I will always remember negative feelings about the whole thing…..

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