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Does diabetes lead to Alzheimer's?

Published February 04. 2012 09:01AM

Coincidence? Possibly. Correlation? Probably.

And if the truth is found in the latter rather than the former, America may look like the Land of the Living Dead by 2050.

The two facts that I fear are related? The increase in a physical affliction that we willfully give ourselves through improper diet and a lack of exercise, type 2 diabetes, and the increase in a mental disease for which there is no known cure, Alzheimer's.

The reason why these two are probably related is revealed in recent Japanese research that found people with diabetes are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. The reason that I feel so fearful comes from two further forecasts.

According to an October 22, 2010 report on ABC News, if the current increase in diabetes is left unabated, 1 in 3 adult Americans will have it by 2050. By that year, the Alzheimer's Association expects the current total of 5.3 million Americans afflicted with Alzheimer's disease to have possibly more than tripled to 16 million.

But it's more than just the single Japanese study linking diabetes to Alzheimer's that is cause for alarm.

For years, we have known that too much amyloid plaque in the brain creates Alzheimer's. Recent research has shown that poor control of blood sugar, the defining feature of diabetes, makes it more difficult for the body to break up amyloid plaque build up.

Additionally, many forms of dementia including Alzheimer's disease are characterized by a decrease in blood flow to the brain. Diabetes damages blood vessels and adversely affects circulation.

This occurs because excessive blood sugar attaches to proteins in the blood vessels and alters their normal structure and function, making them thicker and less elastic and harder for blood to squeeze through.

Previously, diabetes has been clearly linked to blood flow problems in the feet. Sensory diabetic neuropathy creates such nerve damage and numbness that minor foot maladies often go unnoticed. Unfortunately when undetected, these minor maladies can exacerbate to the point where amputation is necessary.

One out of 20 diabetics, in fact, eventually needs some sort of lower leg amputation.

If diabetes can create such havoc in the lower body, why not the upper, including the brain? And if Americans don't change their collective eating habits and 1 out of every 3 adults has diabetes by 2050, isn't the Alzheimer's Association estimation 16 million suffering from the disease at that time a gross underestimation?

Surprisingly, this rather bleak scenario has an upside. Prior research suggests that up to 90 percent of all type 2 diabetes can be eliminated through diet and exercise. If Alzheimer's disease is linked even somewhat to type 2 diabetes and the Japanese study suggests that it's far stronger than that then the same strategies used to improve general health and reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes should reduce your risk of Alzheimer's.

By now, you are probably well aware of how to do that: increase exercise to the point where you can do four 45-minute workouts at a moderate intensity; substitute "good" fats for "bad" ones; reduce your ingestion of processed foods and simple carbs; replace the simple carbs with a combination of complex ones and protein. What you may not know as well is the adverse affect sugar consumption has on your health.

A study presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2011 last November found that even women of normal weight increase their risk of getting diabetes by drinking two or more sugar-sweetened drinks a day.

Prior to this, most experts believed that most cases of type 2 diabetes are triggered by an increase in body weight. The study conducted at Northwestern University's Department of Preventive Medicine in Chicago, however, followed more than 4,000 adults of all races and found possibly because they need fewer calories throughout the day that even if the ingestion of sugary drinks didn't create an increase in female body weight, it spiked their incidence of diabetes, which also created a higher incidence of heart disease.

But even those who shun sugary drinks still may be ingesting too much sugar daily. Dr. Philip J. Goscienski in the November 8, 2011 installment of his column, "Stone Age Doc," wrote that "added sugars account for nearly a quarter of the calories we eat every day."

And the majority of added sugars are not added by you to make your coffee or cereal sweeter. They are added by the manufacturers of processed foods to make their products more appealing.

Quite often these products are ones where you wouldn't expect added sugars, such as spaghetti and barbecue sauces; instant hot cereals; puddings; yogurts; frozen foods, especially breakfast meals; and "healthy" cookies. While it helps to select these items judiciously, a wise selection of cereal especially if you have children can be the greatest way, other than the elimination of sugary beverages, to reduce the ingestion of added sugars.

Once again, the high amount of sugar in children's cereals made news last December. The Environmental Working Group reviewed 84 of the most popular brands in the U.S. and found that one serving of 44 of those cereals contains more sugar than three Chips Ahoy! cookies.

In fact, the 10 cereals that EWG rated as the worst all were more than 40 percent sugar by weight.

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