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This May Raise Dementia Risk in Seniors With Diabetes

Overly aggressive glucose control might backfire in older patients, findings suggest

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, June 10 (HealthDay News) -- Low blood sugar in older adults with type 2 diabetes may increase their risk of dementia, a new study suggests.

While it's important for diabetics to control blood sugar levels, that control "shouldn't be so aggressive that you get hypoglycemia," said study author Dr. Kristine Yaffe, a professor of psychiatry, neurology and epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

The study of nearly 800 people, published online June 10 in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that people with episodes of significant hypoglycemia -- low blood sugar -- had twice the chance of developing dementia, Yaffe said. Conversely, "if you had dementia you were also at a greater risk of getting hypoglycemic, compared with people with diabetes who didn't have dementia," she said.

People with type 2 diabetes, by far the most common form of the disease, either don't make or don't properly use the hormone insulin. Without insulin, which the body needs to convert food into fuel, blood sugar rises to dangerously high levels. Over time, this leads to serious health problems, which is why diabetes treatment focuses on lowering blood sugar. But sometimes blood sugar drops to abnormally low levels, which is known as hypoglycemia.

Exactly why hypoglycemia may increase the risk for dementia isn't known, Yaffe said. Hypoglycemia may reduce the brain's supply of sugar to a point that causes some brain damage, Yaffe said. "That's the most likely explanation," she added.

Moreover, someone with diabetes who has thinking and memory problems is at particularly high risk of developing hypoglycemia, she said, possibly because they can't manage their medications well or perhaps because the brain isn't able to monitor sugar levels.

Whether preventing diabetes in the first place reduces the risk for dementia isn't clear, although it's a "very hot area" of research, Yaffe said.

But the findings do suggest that patients' mental status needs to be considered in the management of diabetes, Yaffe said.

Other experts agreed.

"This does raise concern about low blood sugar causing future problems with dementia and dementia causing problems with low blood sugar," said Dr. Stuart Weinerman, an endocrinologist at North Shore-LIJ in Great Neck, N.Y.

Weinerman isn't convinced that the association between hypoglycemia and dementia is cause-and-effect, however. "This is not a definitive study. It raises questions, but it doesn't answer them," he added.

But hypoglycemia is a serious problem for diabetics, Weinerman said. "Sooner or later, everyone is going to have some hypoglycemia," he said.

Episodes of hypoglycemia increase with age, perhaps because of changes in kidney function and drug metabolism, according to an accompanying journal commentary.

Anyone taking drugs that lower blood sugar should be aware of the signs of hypoglycemia, and be prepared to deal with it, Weinerman said. Symptoms can include confusion, jitteriness, fainting, heart palpitations and blurred vision.

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If the level is below 70 or you are experiencing symptoms such as shaking, sweating or difficulty thinking, you will need to raise the number immediately. A quick solution is to eat a few pieces of hard candy or 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey. Recheck your numbers again in 15 minutes to see if the number has gone up. If not, repeat the steps above or call your doctor.

People who experience hypoglycemia several times in a week should call their health care provider. It's important to monitor your levels each day so you can make sure your numbers are within the range. If you are pregnant always consult with your health care provider.

Congratulations on taking steps to manage your health.

However, it's important to continue to track your numbers so that you can make lifestyle changes if needed. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Your level is high if this reading was taken before eating. Aim for 70-130 before meals and less than 180 two hours after meals.

Even if your number is high, it's not too late for you to take control of your health and lower your blood sugar.

One of the first steps is to monitor your levels each day. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

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