How Christmas cookies could be shrinking your brain

It looks like we can blame high blood sugar for something else–diminished cognition and brain health. And this risk isn’t limited to people with diabetes, either.

As a recent study shows, even non-diabetics face memory loss from increased glucose markers.

This research featured 141 healthy subjects without diabetes or impaired glucose metabolism. Researchers tested HbA1c levels, which measure long-term blood sugar control, as well as fasting glucose and insulin levels. (These are all tests that I perform on every patient that walks through my door.)

The research also included a battery of cognitive tests, including structural brain analysis. Researchers assessed the volume and microstructure of each subject’s hippocampus–the part of your brain responsible for forming and storing memories.

Results showed some concerning correlations in a number of key areas. For one thing, higher blood sugar measurements in both the short and long term were linked to lower performance on three different memory tasks. (Specifically, delayed recall, learning ability, and consolidation.)

Lower levels of HbA1c, on the other hand, were linked to larger hippocampal volume–suggesting that even slightly elevated blood sugar leads to brain changes. (And ultimately, memory loss.)

These researchers think that high blood sugar could damage brain cell membranes, or possibly affect levels of neurotransmitters critical to memory formation, storage, and retrieval.

But it could also lead to blood vessel damage in the brain. This would negatively impact crucial blood and nutrient flow–thereby damaging your brain’s memory centers.

I have to say, this study opens up a pretty big can of worms. Because until now, the traditional medical community only really viewed HbA1c and blood glucose levels in the context of diabetes and diabetes risk management.

I can only hope that, soon, mainstream experts will start thinking more like me–and start looking at elevated blood sugar as the harbinger of bad things to come that it actually is. Particularly since these startling results mirror the ones from a study I shared with you back in September. (Poisoned minds, 9/9/13.)

This study showed that even subjects without diabetes faced an 18 percent higher risk of dementia. All it took was glucose levels that averaged a mere five points higher over a five-year period (115 mg/dL versus 100 mg/dL).

So I think it’s fair to say that these latest findings aren’t a fluke. I just hope people are paying attention.

Everyone knows that prevention is the best medicine. It’s certainly more effective than trying to reverse disease–especially in a rapidly aging population like ours. And I think it’s safe to say that memory is one faculty we’d all like to keep.

Fortunately, the secret is simple. Just do what I do: Exercise regularly and follow a diet high in lean protein and vegetables. And ditch the heavily refined foods.

The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. My fasting blood sugar runs around 70 and my HbA1c was 4.8 last month.

I firmly belief that all patients should have their fasting glucose and HbA1c levels measured as part of a regular medical check-up. This should start at age 35, unless you’re obese or have a personal or family history of diabetes. In either case, you should receive these tests on your first visit to a doctor, regardless of your age.

I always like to see an HbA1c under 5–anything over 5.5 sends up a big red flag. So if you don’t know your numbers, it’s time to find out. Because it really is that important. Especially this time of year, when cookies and candy are practically de rigueur.

If you want your holiday memories to last, start making them sugar-free. It’s as simple as that.

“Higher glucose levels associated with lower memory and reduced hippocampal microstructure.” Neurology. 2013 Nov 12;81(20):1746-52.