For many years, researchers have suspected that there is a relationship between eating too much sugar and developing Alzheimer’s disease. A new study from England, just published in the journal Diabetolgia, gave even stronger evidence that the more sugar we eat, the higher our risk of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is a complex disease, and there is no certain way to prevent it, and some cases are determined by our genes. But no matter what our genes show, this latest research shows a big step all of us can take to decrease our risk—cut down on our intake of sugars and simple carbohydrates.
How sugar can damage our brain
Sugar has been called a “metabolic poison”. In our brain, some of the damage results from substances called “advanced glycation end-products (AGEs)”. These are proteins and fats that have been damaged when they attach to excess sugar in our blood. The more sugar we have floating in our bloodstream, the more AGEs are formed.
These AGEs damage our brain in several ways. They promote inflammation, increase oxidative stress, and directly damage the blood vessels in our brain.
When our sugar levels are high, our insulin levels go up as well, and other research has shown that this also indirectly causes brain damage. Insulin is involved in the process of removing amyloid plaques that form in Alzheimer’s. When too much of our insulin is needed to push glucose into our cells (insulin’s basic function), the amyloid plaques are not cleaned out as well.
The British sugar study
This research involved 5189 volunteers, all part of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. Their average age was 66 years, and 55% were women. Their mental status was evaluated over a 10-year period of time and correlated with their average glucose levels. The way they measured glucose was interesting (the HbA1c test), because this test determines how well a person has been metabolizing glucose over their last 3 months. This test also indirectly measures how much harmful AGEs have formed.
They found that the higher the level of HbA1c, the greater the chance the person would develop dementia (including Alzheimer’s). People who kept their glucose levels in check, meaning they had normal HbA1c levels, had a much lower chance of developing dementia.
Diabetic or not diabetic?
The study showed that it didn’t matter if the individual had diabetes or not. Just the fact that their HbA1c levels were elevated—but not high enough to be considered diabetic—increased the risk of dementia. There is a normal range for any blood test, and the study shows that people at the higher end of the normal range run a higher risk.
What to do?
Cut down on your intake of sugar and simple carbohydrates, especially at nighttime (during sleep our brain does its “housekeeping”). Complex carbohydrates—found in whole fruits and vegetables—are fine and good for you. The villain are the simple carbohydrates found in soft drinks, white bread, processed foods (like cookies), and desserts. For snacks and desserts, try to substitute more whole fruits, nuts, and dark (65% or more cacao) chocolate.
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