Counselling Resource

Psychology, Philosophy & Real Life

Dr George Simon, PhD

Alzheimer’s Disease: A Type of Diabetes?

Scientific studies are showing that there is a startling connection between consuming ‘junk’ foods and developing brain disease.

Photo by CHRISTOPHER DOMBRES - //flic.kr/p/ccyFx7
Photo by CHRISTOPHER DOMBRES - http://flic.kr/p/ccyFx7

Some recent research suggests that Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) might actually be a form of diabetes. The notion that glucose metabolism abnormalities might be at the heart of brain diseases like AD actually dates back to 2005. But newer data pointing to the key role of insulin resistance and deficiency in the brain — not only in the formation of the notorious protein “plaques” that tend to replace normal brain cells in AD sufferers, but also in the impaired cognitive functioning seen in the disease — are lending even further support to the idea. And when we factor into the AD equation the research indicating that people who observe healthier nutritional habits and exercise regularly are not only at lower risk for diabetes in general, but also appear to have a lower risk for developing dementia, it sure seems hard to ignore the signs pointing to sugar metabolism as a major player in cognitive decline.

Last fall, an online op-ed piece in the New York Times cited some of the evidence for sugar as a prime culprit in AD, suggesting that what some are calling “Type 3 Diabetes” might actually be a more accurate label for progressive dementia. And in a recent article in the Huffington Post, Dr Daniel Amen discussed some of the more recent findings about the role of a high glycemic diet and the metabolic dysfunctions associated with such a diet in the development of many diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer), including cognitive disorders. Both of these articles are well worth the read. They summarize quite nicely much of the most convincing research, and make a strong case for getting serious about nutrition as a principal way to stave off diseases that so typically afflict persons middle aged and older. And Dr Amen’s article in particular does a good job of succinctly explaining why we humans become so easily “addicted” to sugary foods, despite the adverse consequences to our health and well-being.

Nutritional researchers have long known that we’re pretty much ‘wired’ to ingest substances containing sugar, fat and salt. Awareness of this is behind just about every new ‘junk food’ concoction that savvy snack food marketers have come up with. The formula is simple: process a starchy substance, fry it and salt it, and whatever ‘chip’ you come up with will likely be consumed in unreasonable amounts by a craving public. Worse yet, most folks will probably want to quench the inevitable thirst that follows with a sweet drink of some type. It’s a great formula for selling chips but a recipe for eventual metabolic disaster.

Our easy addiction to high glycemic foods stems largely from our biological programming. Our brains and muscles need the energy derived from sugar. Our joints and other body systems need fats. We also need a balance of electrolytes, especially sodium, for a variety of reasons, including to keep appropriately hydrated. And back in our cave-dwelling days, coming by sufficient quantities of these substances from fruits, nuts, and various animal sources wasn’t easy and required us to expend considerable energy in the hunt for them (staying physically fit in the process). But today, all we have to do is sit on the couch and reach for the TV remote with one hand while dipping the other hand into a bag of microwave popcorn. Our craving for salt, starch, and fat might be satisfied, but the requirements for a healthy diet certainly are not.

Some research confirming why and how we’ve become so addicted to the wrong foods comes from a 2007 study of laboratory rat behavior and simple sugar (sucrose, fructose) consumption. It seems that when given a choice between ingesting sugar water and cocaine delivered intravenously, rats overindulged in sugar to a greater extent than cocaine, even when they had developed a degree of tolerance to cocaine comparable to cocaine addict (which should have made them crave even more of the cocaine). And while the authors of the study discussed many possible explanations for their findings, they focused particular attention on the fact that, for evolutionary reasons, organisms don’t seem as prone to the kind of tolerance and diminished sensitivity to saccharin than they do to other addictive substances. This, they suggested, is the most likely explanation for why it’s so hard to ‘break the sugar habit.’

Taken as a whole, there is much recent research pointing in a particular direction: high glycemic diets are easy to become addicted to, and contribute heavily to the chronic inflammation underlying a host of medical conditions and abnormalities of metabolic functioning. And now there’s evidence that chronic consumption of sugary foods can lead to insulin resistance in the brain, shrinking of brain structures, buildup of beta-amyloid plaques, and dysfunction of blood vessels, all of which are involved in AD and other progressive dementias. According to Dr Amen, the prescription for prevention is simple: “start eating like a diabetic, so you don’t become one.” He gives this advice not only to those wary of losing their physical health to the effects of Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, but also to those who don’t want to lose their memory and other cognitive abilities to the ravages of what some are now calling Type 3 or “brain” diabetes.

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