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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.

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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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