The systems and functions of our bodies are all interconnected in ways scientists continue working to unravel. As we age, these interactions between systems become even more important as the body’s reactions impact our aging bodies more intensely. Things we were able to shake off in our youth can become life-threatening issues. This is especially true for patients with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, and raises the question of whether diabetes can make seniors confused.
The long-term effects of diabetes can negatively affect multiple systems in your body —the circulatory system, cardiovascular health, and joint health in particular. Diabetes can also affect your cognitive function and increase symptoms of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other cognitive illnesses and disabilities.
In fact, seniors with no previous record of dementia can become confused when they are struggling to control diabetes. How, then, can diabetes make seniors confused? What links diet and insulin production to brain functions? Diabetes in seniors is actually linked to confusion and cognitive dysfunction in multiple ways.
Understanding how diabetes and the brain interact now provides an opportunity to monitor your loved one (or yourself) for recognizable symptoms. Like many diseases, noticing these signs early on means action can be taken to prevent the progression of the confusion.
Alzheimer’s Disease and Diabetes in Seniors
More than a quarter of adults over the age of 65 in the United States suffer from diabetes. Diabetes occurs when your body’s blood sugar is too high. Depending on which type of diabetes is present (Type 1 or Type 2), this interferes with the ability to create insulin or the ability to process glucose (or blood sugar). Insulin turns glucose into energy. The interference results in low blood sugar, which can cause sluggishness, confusion, and, in extreme cases, seizures and death.
Diabetes in seniors, however, may be an even more chronically dangerous problem. Low blood sugar and cognitive decline can become a vicious cycle. In fact, several studies found that people with diabetes are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
How Can Diabetes Make Seniors Confused?
Many factors can influence how diabetes can make seniors confused and how it can impact cognitive function later in life. Two of these causes of confusion and other dementia symptoms are perhaps the most serious.
High Blood Sugar and the Risk of Stroke or Cardiovascular Events
Seniors with diabetes are at a much greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease, and the chances of having a stroke also rise. Brain damage, loss of oxygen, and other damage caused by strokes and heart attacks can all cause confusion, leading to a higher risk of developing a cognitive disorder.
The increased risk of heart attack and stroke is caused by the damage from extended periods of high blood sugar. High glucose levels damage the blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart. The longer you have diabetes, the more likely you are to develop heart disease. For this reason, people with diabetes are prescribed insulin and other medications created to lower blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar, however can also be a danger — and have severe ramifications on seniors’ cognitive function.
Low Blood Sugar and the Risk of Dementia
One federally funded study followed 783 seniors in good cognitive health but diagnosed with diabetes over the course of 12 years. Those who were hospitalized for hypoglycemia during those years were twice as likely to be diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s. The study also found this relationship ran both ways: People diagnosed with dementia were twice as likely to experience a severe hypoglycemic event after their diagnosis.
Why, exactly, do these issues contribute to each other — and why can diabetes make seniors confused in this particular way? Low blood sugar deprives your brain of the nutrients and energy it needs to function correctly. Low blood sugar leads to confusion, difficulty with coordination, and behavior changes... all of which are also symptoms of dementia. Over the long term, permanent damage and impairment can result from untreated blood sugar concerns. Many studies suggest hypoglycemia can injure the neurons in your brain and even kill them. While younger people may bounce back from a hypoglycemic attack, an older person with a weaker immune system and decreased ability to heal can find this damage irreparable.
Unfortunately, even though confusion is a symptom, these dangerous hypoglycemic episodes can be caused by dementia. People with memory and reasoning problems will likely experience difficulty sticking to a complicated treatment plan. If they do not remember to take their medication, they are more likely to have a hypoglycemic attack, creating further impairments and further damaging cognitive function — a dangerous and vicious cycle.
Help for Diabetes in Seniors
The best thing you can do for a senior with diabetes is control the diabetes, thus preventing diabetes-related dementia. However, if you are a loved one or caregiver of someone living with both diabetes and dementia, take extra care to watch for signs of confusion and ensure they are taking their prescribed medication at the appropriate times.
Eating healthy, exercising, and weight control are all excellent places to start to control diabetes in seniors — and ways you can help seniors not become confused by diabetes. If your loved one is unable to exercise, increasing any of their physical activity by even a small amount can have huge benefits. Make sure they eat well-balanced meals suitable to a senior’s nutritional needs.
Another great way to help diabetes in seniors is by talking to your loved one’s doctor about simplifying their diabetes treatment as much as possible. Simplifying a diabetes treatment plan can help in two ways. First, it can make it much easier for your loved one to remember and complete the steps of treatment. Second, simple plans can take the focus off of glucose targets and put it on a balanced lifestyle. There is a fine line between maintaining quality of life and requiring frequent, intensive care. Diabetes can make seniors confused, which makes gentle but constant attention to state of mind absolutely essential.
For More Information
If you have questions about how to control diabetes in seniors or would like to know more about how diabetes can make seniors confused — and how to avoid that confusion — contact CareLink. We can direct you to the appropriate resources and help you sign up for caregiver services. We can also help you sign up for our Meals on Wheels program to ensure your loved one is getting the nutrition they need.