How Type 2 Diabetes Ages The Brain

You might not think of the brain when you think of diabetes, but like other parts of your body, the brain uses glucose for energy. In fact, the Harvard Medical School reports that the brain uses half of all the glucose in the body for tasks like memory, learning, and thinking. For this reason, it makes sense that when glucose is out of balance — as it is with type 2 diabetes — it can negatively impact on the brain. 

Research shows that people with type 2 diabetes experience degrees of impairment in certain areas of the brain. For instance, a 2014 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine looked at 13,351 adults diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Researchers found they experienced a 19% greater decline in cognitive function, compared to their counterparts. In addition, people with pre-diabetes saw more cognitive decline than people who were not diagnosed with the condition (via the Annals of Internal Medicine). Now, new research suggests that type 2 diabetes accelerates brain aging, which leads to a host of other problems.

Type 2 diabetes causes the brain to shrink

A study published in the journal eLife revealed that the brains of 20,314 people between the ages of 50 and 80 who were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes aged faster than those without the disease. Data from brain scans and brain function assessments also showed that the brains of those with diabetes shrunk at a faster rate. Specifically, gray matter atrophied 14% to 26% faster. Functions affected include memory, thinking, and brain processing speed. Moreover, by the time diabetes is diagnosed, the damage had already occurred.

While it is normal for the brain to shrink with age, senior researcher Lilianne Mujica-Parodi said the difference was like "losing 10 years." She added that if brain cells do not have access to glucose, they essentially starve (via U.S. News and World Report). As the researchers pointed out, when the brain shrinks, blood vessels shrink as well, which can cause cognitive problems, including dementia. The authors of the study stressed the importance of treatment that targets the degenerative effects that type 2 diabetes has on the brain.