Few ailments leave as much devastation in their wake as Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a cruel, debilitating, deadly sickness with no known cure, that starts with stealing the patient’s memory as it slowly bores its way through the brains and bodies of loved ones. Then, it saps physical abilities, before robbing relatives of the person they once knew. But Alzheimer’s doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t relent until an entire family’s time, energy and resources are virtually gone, replaced by tears, sadness, then ultimately, and unexpectedly, by relief.
Alzheimer’s disease, named around 1906 for Dr. Alois Alzheimer, is far more than losing your car keys.
For a condition that affects so many people, 5.4 million according to figures from the Alzheimer’s Association, in such growing numbers — what appears to be an inevitable cost of an increasingly aging population — the origins of the disease have despite decades of research remained largely unknown. And it has been said, not without a large measure of truth, that the scientist or company able to develop a drug that can successfully treat Alzheimer’s disease will save or positively alter the lives of millions of people worldwide, not to mention reap untold billions of dollars in well-earned profit.
For starters, Alzheimer’s disease, considered by many to be worse than cancer, today costs the U.S. healthcare system approximately $200 billion annually.
Now, a theory that has made the rounds of scientific circles since 2005 is beginning to gain wide favor. That is the link between Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease has been dubbed Type 3 diabetes.
People are born with Type 1 diabetes while Type 2, which used to be called “adult onset,” a label that now extends to millions of children as well as adults, is strongly associated with big meals and no exercise.
Diabetes of all types diminishes the body’s ability to convert sugar to energy. And when diabetes is not controlled, which happens often since many people are unaware they even have the disease, an overabundance of sugar lingers in the bloodstream, eventually harming organs like the brain.
The fear is that in the coming decades, partially due to the mounting obesity problem in the U.S., more cases of Alzheimer’s disease will begin to emerge, placing more pressure on an already costly healthcare system.
That’s because an estimated 21 million people in the U.S. are known to have diabetes.
The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 54 million U.S. adults are prediabetic, defined as having blood sugar levels higher than normal but not yet in the diabetic range. A majority of those individuals will develop Type 2 diabetes within ten years of diagnosis, although diet and exercise can help just about everyone in that category.
According to a recent piece in The New York Times an astonishing estimate of 115 million new cases of Alzheimer’s are projected worldwide in the next 40 years, which will cost society more than a trillion of today’s dollars. The cover story in the September 1 issue of the British publication New Scientist offered a detailed clinical account of the topic.
The rising numbers of diabetics “are a real concern,” says Pam Polowski, a certified dementia practitioner who has spent the last five years lecturing on Alzheimer’s and dementia to caregivers and training clinicians on behalf of the Alzheimer’s Association. She now works in a similar capacity in Sarasota and Manatee County, Fla., for Infinity Homecare.
“I believe that 30 to 40 percent of diabetes patients get some form of dementia, and dementia is the most common form of Alzheimer’s,” she told VOXXI. “Our whole body systems are linked together and people who are predisposed to diabetes really have to watch their mental health.
“So many people with diabetes just don’t get it. We have tried to tell people to watch it but they just don’t try to do better [with diet and exercise]. Diabetes impacts their judgment and reasoning.”
Polowski says that over the years she has seen signs of mild cognitive impairment or MCI in many diabetes patients.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, MCI causes a slight but noticeable and measurable decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and thinking skills, and people with MCI are at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s or another dementia.
“Diabetes impacts everything they do,” Polowski said. “They get confused about the medications they are supposed to take and become insulin dependent. Even the average patient isn’t that compliant in the first place. Diabetes patients are much worse.”