The Connection Between Glaucoma, Alzheimer’s, and Diabetes

Originally published in Women's Health Letter, Aug. 1, 2015; Used with permission.

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Collage by Cam Howard, 2016; Berberis vulgaris by Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé / public domain; Curcuma longa by Simon A. Eugster / CC BY-SA 3.0; Gymnema sylvestre by Lalithamba / CC BY 2.0

Berberine (from barberry, top left), curcumin, and gymnema sylvestre (right) can help regulate blood sugar. Lowering blood sugar can improve many issues: mood, memory, weight, and energy.

Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating illness, affecting an estimated 5.2 million Americans, according to 2013 statistics. It’s believed to be the third leading cause of death in the US, following only heart disease and cancer. It’s shockingly prevalent, with one in nine seniors over the age of 65 suffering from this severe form of dementia. While there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, research is amassing every day. And recently, scientists have begun identifying connections between Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

New research suggests it isn’t just Alzheimer’s that’s linked to diabetes. Less severe forms of dementia also could be a complication of diabetes.

So what’s the connection? Why would diabetes be such a major contributor to memory loss?

You may know that people develop type-2 diabetes when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough of the hormone insulin or the body can’t use insulin properly to process sugar. But you may not know that the brain also makes insulin. When the brain doesn’t make enough, it affects the whole body, just like the pancreas does. In fact, one of the most severe complications of diabetes is blindness.

The eyes are so directly connected to the brain that many in the medical community believe they are an extension of the brain.

The impact of diabetes on your eyes is now gaining even more attention. One group of researchers in India hypothesized that the eye disease glaucoma is actually diabetes of the brain. The group made the hypothesis based on the remarkable similarities between glaucoma and diabetes. Glaucoma and diabetes have many similar characteristics, including various molecular mechanisms, the involvement of insulin, and similar treatments that work on both illnesses.

With Alzheimer’s disease already considered diabetes type-3, we’re now seeing that eye disease and brain disease are related. Other researchers are now calling Alzheimer’s disease “cerebral glaucoma.” We’re looking at a very real connection between diabetes, glaucoma, and Alzheimer’s. So let’s look at this connection in more depth.

Scientists have found that diabetes and brain insulin resistance are prevalent among Alzheimer’s sufferers. The first person to recognize this connection was a neuropathologist from Rhode Island Hospital, Suzanne M. de la Monte. Dr. de la Monte is a professor of pathology at Brown Medical School, and she led a study that found that when insulin production in the brain decreases, the brain’s cells start to deteriorate. It won’t surprise you to learn that deteriorating brain cells are an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a similar deterioration that occurs in retinal ganglion cells, which causes glaucoma.

Other researchers in Australia found a connection between brain volume loss and type-2 diabetes. They found that the brain volumes of those with type-2 diabetes reduced by half compared with those whose blood sugar levels were normal. In particular, the decreases were in the areas of the brain that control decision-making and long-term memory.

But it’s not just this severe form of dementia that diabetes can cause. It also can cause less severe forms of dementia. A study out of Taipei, Taiwan made this important discovery. Researchers from the National Taiwan University College of Public Health, Cathay General Hospital, and Fu Jen Catholic University said, “Our research is the first nationwide study to examine how the severity and progression of diabetes is related to dementia diagnosis rates in an older population. We found that as diabetes progresses and an individual experiences more complications from the disease, the risk of dementia rises as well.”

To conduct the study, the researchers used the Taiwan National Health Insurance Research Database’s records dating back to 1999. Through that research, they identified 431,178 people over the age of 50 with newly diagnosed diabetes. Then the researchers looked to see how many of these were either admitted to a hospital or had at least three outpatient medical visits for dementia after their diabetes diagnosis. Here’s what they found. Among the people in the study (all of whom had diabetes), 26,856 of them were later diagnosed with dementia. While 6.2% of the total may seem small, the risk of developing dementia was higher among people who had a high score on the Diabetes Complications Severity Index than for those who had a low score. That means that those people who don’t control their diabetes well are far more likely to develop dementia.

There is definitely a connection between Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes. Dr. de la Monte says, “Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes affect different parts of the body, but they are manifestations of the same disease.” This means we may be able to treat Alzheimer’s – and glaucoma – the same way we do diabetes. And in fact, an anti-diabetic drug is beginning to show some promise. The FDA has approved this drug, called Byetta or Bydureon. It’s a synthetic form of exendin-4, which is a hormone found (believe it or not) in the saliva of the Gila monster lizard. One study used exendin-4 to treat mice who had Alzheimer’s disease, and the researchers saw noticeable improvements in the mice’s cognitive function.

But you don’t need to use manufactured lizard spit to control your blood sugar. There’s a better way. First, take what we already know about preventing diabetes to heart: you must eat a healthful diet and exercise. Regular exercise will help increase blood flow to your brain and increase insulin responsiveness in your brain and your pancreas. Eating a diet high in vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes and low in sugar will help your blood sugar levels stay where they should be.

Second, rather than turning to expensive pharmaceuticals that may have dangerous side effects, give curcumin a try. Curcumin is a chemical that occurs naturally in turmeric. It has anti-inflammatory properties, and it helps regulate blood sugar, so it’s a great weapon in the fight against both diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

Since curcumin is a natural substance, pharmaceutical companies can’t patent it. Instead, they’re working on creating it in synthetic form. But there’s no need to wait for them to develop an over-priced drug. You can take curcumin as a supplement. If you do, one of the best ways to take it is in the form of Meriva®, which is 20 times stronger than regular curcumin. In addition to curcumin, it can be helpful to include chromium, Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicinal herbs, and other nutrients to get your blood sugar back in shape.

More than 20 years ago, I began noticing that many of my patients over 50 complained of poor memory. Most of them were using self-prescribed herbs and nutrients and they reported that they helped a little. Around the same time, I was at a medical conference and there was an older neurologist from Johns Hopkins presenting. I approached him after his talk and asked him about this memory phenomena and what he thought about it. “Sugar,” he said, “sugar.”

He explained to me that it wasn’t really being studied, but he felt that, as we age, our ability to handle and metabolize sugar – not only sugar from carbohydrates but also the sugars that are eventually created from proteins as well, diminishes. This once seamless process becomes deficient and chaotic as we age.

I came home from the conference and I obsessively began testing the blood sugar levels of all of my patients with poor memory. To my surprise, about 85% of them were high or high normal. They were not diabetic, but were in the high normal to pre-diabetic zone.

At this point I began prescribing nutrients and herbs to be taken twice daily for two to three months. Almost all of them reported that they felt more “even” or “calm,” had more energy and thought their memory was improving. This does not a study make. I tell this story because I have watched for 20 years how lowering blood sugar that was headed in a high direction can improve many issues: mood, memory, weight, energy, etc.

In the United States our communal blood sugar in people over 45 is on the rise. Research is showing that our after-meal blood sugar spikes are more damaging than elevated fasting blood sugar. Did you know that our risk for a heart attack increases by 58% for every 21 mg/dL rise in after-meal blood sugar?

So, as we age, it’s even more important to keep our blood sugar down. If you have a high-normal fasting blood sugar and hgbA1c, the supplements listed above may be helpful to put the “organization” back into your blood sugar metabolism. Supplements containing the remarkable ingredient berberine helps stops blood sugar spikes before they start. How? Berberine helps to slow down carbohydrate digestion so sugars don’t hit your system too quickly. It also sends signals to your digestion so that your pancreas produces the right amount of insulin – like Goldilocks – not too much and not too little.

Gymnema sylvestre is an Indian herb known as “the sugar destroyer.” There have been over 29 studies showing that gymnema improves blood sugar and supports healthy insulin function. These herbs combined with chromium and magnesium help to improve blood sugar levels quickly.

The thought of developing diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or glaucoma can be scary. But with these new discoveries, we’re more empowered than ever to take steps to prevent it.

References

Faiq, Muneeb A., Rima Dada, Daman Saluja, and Tanuj Dada. “Glaucoma – Diabetes of the brain: A radical hypothesis about its nature and pathogenesis,” Medical Hypotheses, February 17, 2014.

Wei-Che Chiu, MD, PhD et al. Progess of Diabetic Severity and Risk of Dementia. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, July 2015 DOI: 10.1210/jc.2015-1677

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