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Diabetes and Memory Loss

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Diabetes and Memory LossDiabetes is an incurable disease characterized by high blood glucose levels. This is the result of the body's inability to produce or use insulin. One of the complications of diabetes is short term memory loss - and in this article we'll look at the different variations of the disease and how each type can be a cause of memory loss.


What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a group of diseases which affects nearly 24 million (8%) of the US population. The condition is is categorized into three different forms:

  • Type 1 Diabetes is a genetic defect usually diagnosed in children and young adults. It arises from the inability to produce the hormone insulin, which is needed every time you eat to convert sugar and starches into energy. People with Type 1 diabetes usually need to inject insulin into their bodies and constantly be aware of their blood sugar levels. Fortunately, this most extreme form of diabetes only affects 5-10% of all sufferers but with no cure is does remain a lifelong condition.

  • Type 2 Diabetes is the most common form of diabetes and millions of Americans have been diagnosed, although many more are at high risk. This condition is often diagnosed later in life when the body can no longer produce enough insulin, or the cells begin to ignore the insulin. Without intervention, this can lead to serious complications including heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.

  • Gestational Diabetes is a temporary form of the disease which affects around 4% of all pregnant women at 28 weeks or later. It begins when hormones from the placenta block the action of the mother's insulin. The condition corrects itself after the birth but it is very important to maintain healthy blood sugar levels during pregnancy to avoid serious complications for both mother and baby.


Diabetes and Memory Loss

People who suffer from diabetes must take extra care to control their condition so that their blood sugar levels never get too high - or too low. They must carefully monitor how much and what kind of foods they eat, how much physical exercise they do, and in the case of Type 1 diabetes, how much insulin they inject into themselves.

When diabetes is left uncontrolled is can lead to memory loss. There is limited storage for glucose in the brain, and it must pass through the blood-brain barrier where its intake is regulated. We need a constant supply of glucose to the brain in order to maintain normal brain functioning. So when a diabetic person becomes hyperglycemic (too much glucose) or hypoglycemic (too little glucose) the brain functioning suffers...



Neurotransmission is the passage of signals from one nerve cell to another, via chemicals or electrical signals. To function properly, it requires a high metabolic rate in the brain and a constant supply of glucose.

When you are learning new information and committing it to memory, it is essential that neurotransmission can take place. Any lag in the process will severely impede your ability to learn and remember. This can affect everyone on some level - remember a time when you skipped breakfast and couldn't concentrate all morning till you ate something?

For diabetics, the risk of failing neurotransmission occurs daily, no matter whether they have Type 1, Type 2 or Gestational Diabetes. You may think that high glucose levels could accelerate your brain functioning but this is just as damaging as low glucose levels. Both extremes cause the hippocampus to malfunction, resulting in poor concentration and attention span, short term memory loss, and the inability to commit anything new to long term memory.


How to Improve Your Memory as a Diabetic

Proper management of diabetes and the maintenance of appropriate blood-sugar levels are essential in protecting yourself from memory loss. Ensuring that your blood pressure is well-controlled is also vitally important. Maintenance of these factors along with the following combination of memory-boosting activities and behaviors can improve cognition and prevent memory loss: 

  • Sleep - The link between sleep and diabetes should not be ignored. Researchers have confirmed that high blood sugar can cause insomnia and restless sleep. Poor sleeping habits have also been shown to increase insulin resistance, wherein the body fails to recognize and properly respond to the presence or introduction of insulin. Sleep has also been proven to positively affect memory, as the brain uses this time to sort and file information collected throughout the day. Maintaining a steady sleep cycle and getting the best, uninterrupted sleep possible for 7 – 9 hours each day is as crucial for memory health as it is for controlling diabetes.

  • Brain Training - Mental exercise is as good for the brain as physical exercise is for the body. Stimulate your mind with online memory games, crosswords or soduku puzzles. Learn a new language or master a musical instrument. These activities can build your mental muscles.

  • Exercise and Diet - While we're on the subject of exercise, physical exercise is good for the brain too. Along with endorphin release and mood enhancement, recent studies show that exercise creates new neurons within the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Combine an appropriate level of exercise with a low-fat, nutrient-rich diet packed with fish, lean meats, fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains and legumes. These foods nourish the brain and keep glucose levels steady.

  • Manage Stress Levels – High stress levels are very counter-productive when it comes to managing diabetes and blood sugar levels. When faced with a stressful situation, the body activates the fight or flight mechanism which includes pumping extra sugar into the blood stream so you can fight the bear or outrun the tiger
In addition to driving up blood sugar levels, high stress increases your appetite. The body anticipates burning more calories dealing with the stressful event. If the stress levels remain elevated, the body stores the extra calories not being burned as fat, which in turn reduces insulin sensitivity. Increased blood sugars combined with increased appetite and reduced insulin sensitivity, is a recipe for a poor memory, heart disease, kidney problems and a host of other problems. Anything you can do to reduce your stress levels will help you manage your diabetes and improve your memory.

To better understand the impact stress has on your memory,check out our page on stress and memory loss.

Other possible causes of memory loss include poor nutrition, depression, low thyroid function, Parkinson disease and of course, Alzheimer's disease. If you are maintaining proper glucose levels and do not have uncontrolled blood pressure but are still suffering from memory loss, your doctor may want to check for other possible root causes. It is therefore important to mention any issues with memory or cognition to your doctor as soon as you notice changes. 

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