It’s long been known that diabetes can lead to a variety of serious complications including cardiovascular disease, stroke, neuropathy (nerve damage), kidney failure, and loss of hearing and vision. Now, a new study says diabetes in midlife is also associated with a significantly increased risk of experiencing cognitive decline later on in life.
It’s estimated that just under one in 10 Americans have diabetes. Research has proven that maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise can also help prevent the disease, as obesity is the strongest risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
The new research, published in the latest issue of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, is one of the longest studies to look at the link between diabetes and the long-term risk for cognitive decline.
In the study, researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health looked at over 20 years of data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study (ARIC) study, and found that people with poorly managed diabetes had nearly 20 percent more cognitive decline due to aging, compared to those without.
“The lesson is that to have a healthy brain when you’re 70, you need to eat right and exercise when you’re 50. There is a substantial cognitive decline associated with diabetes, pre-diabetes and poor glucose control in people with diabetes. And we know how to prevent or delay the diabetes associated with this decline,” lead researcher Elizabeth Selvin said in a statement.
The study used data from around 15,800 middle-aged subjects, who were an average age of 57 at the start of the study in 1987. The study followed up with participants a total of five times until 2013, measuring their cognitive function at three of those intervals.
Even those with well-managed diabetes or pre-diabetes had more cognitive decline than those without the condition. Researchers likened it to diabetes aging the mind about five years faster than it would with normal age-related decline.
Other studies have also tied cognitive decline to lifestyle factors like diet. A 2012 study conducted by the Mayo Clinic suggested that people who eat high-carb diets are four times more likely to experience cognitive impairment.
But what if you already have diabetes? It’s not too late, researchers say — there are still plenty of things you can do to protect yourself. Besides watching what you eat and getting regular exercise to keep off excess pounds, the authors say you can also do things like quit smoking and to reduce the effects of the disease.
“If we can do a better job at preventing diabetes and controlling diabetes, we can prevent the progression to dementia for many people,” Selvin says. “Even delaying dementia by a few years could have a huge impact on the population, from quality of life to health care costs.”