Diabetes, dementia and cognitive impairment

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

There are many things you can do to keep yourself healthy when living with diabetes:

  1. Keep your blood glucose levels in your recommended target range
  2. Take medications as prescribed
  3. Keep blood pressure, cholesterol and weight in target ranges
  4. Choose not to smoke
  5. Make healthy food choices
  6. Do regular physical activity

Working with your health care team to manage your diabetes is effective to avoid, or reduce, complications. Sound diabetes management may also help prevent cognitive impairment and dementia.

What is dementia?

Dementia is not one specific disease, but a collection of symptoms caused by diseases affecting the brain. There are many different types of dementia. Two of the most common types are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Dementia affects thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks. Impairment of memory, attention, language, planning, judgement or spatial skills can impact your daily activities.

Although people living with diabetes are at increased risk (20%) of developing dementia, when compared to the general public (10%), the majority will not develop dementia.

Researchers are looking at these risk factors, all may cause damage to the brain cells and vessels:

  • Frequent highs or lows in blood glucose levels
  • Insulin resistance causing high insulin levels
  • Build-up of proteins in the brain


Steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Monitor your blood glucose levels, and aim to keep them within your recommended targets
  • Take your medications as prescribed
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Reduce your alcohol consumption, and avoid smoking
  • Keep mentally and socially active
  • Treat high cholesterol and high blood pressure


When to be concerned

It is important to recognise the links between diabetes and dementia. We know that not all cases of dementia can be prevented through risk reduction but reducing those that you can will be beneficial.

Visit https://diabetesnsw.com.au/about-us/blog/how-to-reduce-your-dementia-risk/ for more information on risk reduction.

Other conditions have symptoms similar to dementia. These include some vitamin and hormone deficiencies, depression, medication clashes or over-medication, infections and brain tumours.


What to look out for:

  • Weight loss
  • Blood glucose levels that are not as manageable as they used to be
  • Forgetfulness, and inability to do your usual tasks
  • Apathy, withdrawal or feeling overwhelmed with tasks, and confusion

First symptoms can be subtle and similar to age-related changes in function. But if they continue, or progress, there may be an issue. Usually it is a family member who notices the problem.   If you are concerned about your memory it is best to talk with your loved ones, and see if they have noticed any issues.


Where to go to for help

It is important to be diagnosed early so that you get the treatment and support you need.  If you are concerned about your memory function, speak with your general practitioner (GP). Your GP will usually assess your memory and general health, and refer you to a specialist if needed.

If you do have cognitive impairment, it is recommended you review your diabetes management.  A credentialed diabetes educator can provide ideas on how to simplify the structure of your management and your daily routine. Your family and friends may need to be educated in how best to assist you.


For information on dementia and diabetes, visit the Dementia Australia website.

Resources include videos about the link between diabetes and dementia, supporting someone, carers’ experiences, a tool kit that includes comprehensive information and ways to protect your brain health.


If you have questions about dementia, call the National Dementia Helpline 1800 100 500;

For questions on your diabetes management, contact Diabetes NSW & ACT Helpline 1300 342 238


Monica McDaniel-Wong, Credentialled Diabetes Educator

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