Blood Sugar and Memory

People looking to maintain their memory as they age should start making better health decisions now.

According to a new study published in the journal Neurology, people with high blood sugar levels may develop memory problems as they get older.

Researchers at Charité University Medicine in Berlin and other institutions tested the memory skills of 141 people with an average age of 63. While none were diabetic or pre-diabetic, the researchers found that those with higher blood sugar levels scored worse on memory tests.

“These results suggest that even for people within the normal range of blood sugar, lowering their blood sugar levels could be a promising strategy for preventing memory problems and cognitive decline as they age,” study author Dr. Agnes Flöel said in a press release.

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Sugar’s Effect on the Hippocampus

Using brain scans, researchers found that the same people with elevated blood sugar levels also had smaller hippocampuses, a part of the brain pivotal to memory.

Experts aren’t exactly sure how blood sugar levels and the hippocampus are related. Flöel says blood sugar levels may impair the function of the hippocampus specifically, or they may damage small and large blood vessels in the brain, leading to decreased blood and nutrient flow to brain cells.

The research doesn’t mean that swapping a soda for a glass of water will immediately improve your memory, but in the long term, it could help extend sharp memory into your later years.

“These general recommendations may beneficially influence memory and brain structure, in theory even at a younger age,” Flöel said. “However, the changes induced by slightly elevated glucose levels need to accumulate in the brain over longer time periods (years and decades), so younger people will probably not directly benefit, but their lifestyle choices at a younger age will make them more or less likely to develop memory problems in later life.”

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Lowering Blood Sugar to Improve Brain Health

There are several ways the young and old can keep their blood sugar low, Flöel says.

These include:

  • maintaining a healthy body weight
  • consuming a diet rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole-grains, similar to the Mediterranean diet
  • exercising on a regular basis

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Flöel also recommends that anyone at risk for pre-diabetes or diabetes—which is common in obese people—and everyone over the age of 55 get a fasting glucose and HbA1c test during regular health exams.

Save Your Brain by Learning Something New

The current belief about saving brain power as you age is that people must use-it-or-lose-it.

However, new research published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that you can’t just use your brain, you have to challenge it.

Researchers studied 221 adults ages 60 to 90 and told them to engage in a particular type of activity for 15 hours a week. Some were told to learn a new skill—digital photography, quilting, or both—or to do more familiar activities at home, such as listening to classical music or completing word puzzles.

After three months, researchers found that those who learned a new activity showed improvements in their memory compared to those who did not.

“It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something—it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially,” lead researcher Denise Park, a psychological scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, said. “When you are inside your comfort zone, you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”

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