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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Diabetes in Middle Age May Cause Memory Problems

Study also found that high blood pressure has similar impact


The study authors found that people who developed diabetes in middle age had brains that were on average 2.9 percent smaller than people who didn't have diabetes. And their hippocampi were even smaller -- an average of 4 percent smaller than those of non-diabetics.

"When your hippocampus begins to shrink, you begin to lose your long-term memory and your ability to remember recent events," said Roberts, who also is a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

Midlife diabetes also was associated with an 85 percent greater risk of micro-strokes in the brain. Finally, people with middle-age diabetes were twice as likely to have thinking or memory problems, the study found.

And people with high blood pressure in midlife were twice as likely to have damage caused by stroke to portions of the brain associated with thought, memory and language, the researchers said.

Although the study uncovered an apparent link between diabetes or high blood pressure in middle age and memory problems later in life, it didn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

The research results emphasize the need for people to adopt a healthy lifestyle in middle age or earlier, Fargo said.

Recent polls show that nearly a quarter of people mistakenly think they're at risk for Alzheimer's disease only if it runs in their family, he said. In reality, dementia can strike anyone if they don't take good care of themselves, he added.

"If you've got a brain, you're at risk for dementia," Fargo said. "Midlife is really going to be a critical time for people to focus on their brain health, and not wait until it's too late."

People who want to protect their brain health should avoid developing diabetes or high blood pressure, Roberts said. She noted that even people who became diabetic in old age still suffered areas of brain damage as a result of the disease.

If a person does develop either chronic condition, they can limit the impact on thinking and memory by controlling the disease with diet, exercise and medication, the researchers said.

"If you have type 2 diabetes, you have an increased risk of brain damage," Roberts said. "But if you control your diabetes well, it should reduce the damage that is being caused in your brain."

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