The Seven Healthy Habits that Protect Against Dementia in Diabetes

Diabetes is known to increase the risk of dementia and accelerate its development. Those risks, however, can be improved, and experts have estimated that as many as 50 percent of Alzheimer’s disease diagnoses are preventable.

The latest issue of the medical journal Neurology has identified seven healthy lifestyle habits that are associated with a lower risk of dementia in people with type 2 diabetes. People that follow all seven habits may be about half as likely to develop dementia as people who follow two or fewer.

The Seven Healthy Habits

#1 – Not smoking

Smoking is extraordinarily unhealthy, especially for people with diabetes. It has significant negative effects on insulin resistance, metabolic health, and blood sugar control. It also dramatically accelerates the development of diabetes complications, particularly cardiovascular and kidney diseases.

The insulin resistance and high blood sugar of diabetes can lead to cognitive impairment – it should be no surprise that smoking makes it all worse.

#2 – Moderate alcohol consumption

You may have heard that a drink or two most nights is actually good for you – a relationship that may hold true for people with diabetes, too. Some study has also suggested that light drinking can help improve insulin resistance. This is still a contested subject, and authorities do not recommend alcohol as a therapy for diabetes.

What is absolutely clear, however, is that heavy drinking is terrible for people with diabetes. Large amounts of alcohol have toxic effects on the pancreatic beta cells, in addition to their many other problems, hastening the intensification of diabetes symptoms and complications.

The Neurology researchers found that heavier drinking (more than one or two drinks per night) contributed to cognitive decline.

#3 – Regular physical activity

The vast health benefits of exercise are totally undisputed, especially for people with diabetes. Even when physical activity doesn’t lead to weight loss, it delivers the type of results you’d expect from weight loss — you’ll feel healthier and you’ll be healthier. An adult that is obese but fit can have much lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease than an adult that is lean and out of shape.

Researchers set their target at 2.5 hours of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

#4 – Healthy diet

How do you define a “healthy” diet? It’s a controversial question, especially in the field of diabetes. Health authorities now recognize that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet for diabetes, acknowledging that several alternative diets can help with glycemic control, insulin sensitivity, and weight loss. Despite disagreements between diet advocates, almost everyone agrees on a few commonalities – for example, that sugar and refined starches should be avoided, and vegetables emphasized.

The researchers for the Neurology article took a fairly mainstream approach, defining it as a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish, with less refined grains and meat.

#5 – Adequate sleep

One of the most underrated diabetes health factors, sleep quality is a surprisingly big deal. Experts believe that adults should be getting seven to nine hours of sleep per day. When people with diabetes fall short of this goal, they can suffer both from blood sugar management challenges (including increased insulin resistance and hunger) and from the obvious mental health consequences.

# 6 – Less sedentary behavior

The scientific evidence is beyond dispute: Sedentary lifestyle is strongly implicated in both the development and progression of type 2 diabetes. It’s also associated with increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and cognitive decline.

Getting up off the couch confers many health benefits, improving both physical and mental health, reducing fatigue, and even increasing life expectancy.

#7 – Frequent social contact

Earlier this month we reported that loneliness is a major diabetes risk factor. A study of about 24,000 Norwegian adults found that those who claimed to feel high levels of loneliness in the 1990’s were twice as likely to develop diabetes over the next 25 years. The authors speculated that loneliness may not only affect diet and lifestyle choices, but that it may also trigger a chemical stress response causing inflammation, heightened glucose levels, and insulin resistance.

At the same time, loneliness is also known to be a very serious risk factor for dementia and many other conditions, including heart disease and stroke.

The Results

Working with data from over 160,000 UK residents over the age of 60, researchers placed study participants into different categories depending on how many of the seven healthy habits they followed. Here’s some of what they learned:

Most study participants followed three to five of the healthy habits.
People with diabetes who only followed two or fewer of the healthy habits were twice as likely to develop dementia as those that followed all seven habits.
Every additional healthy habit reduced the risk of dementia by about 11 percent.
All of these associations were independent of blood sugar control.

The study design echoed that of another recent article much-discussed in the diabetes press: a BMJ article that assessed the impact of four of the same risk factors on the development of type 2 diabetes in women that had previously developed gestational diabetes. Although the population and outcomes studied were very different, the conclusion was the same – each modifiable risk factor “was associated with an incrementally lower risk.”

We hardly needed confirmation of it, but it’s good to have a reminder: diabetes is profoundly affected by lifestyle decisions, and simple lifestyle changes that are easily achievable for many of us – like going for walk or getting more sleep – can make a big difference to your health.

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