They start in your forties as periodic mental hiccups where you suddenly lose the thread of a thought. By your fifties, they happen often enough to make you jokingly introduce the phase “senior moment” to your vocabulary. And by the time you enter your sixties, there’s not a lot of humor in them any more. Senior moments become an often exasperating stall in conversations and thought.
Scientists call senior moments “cognitive aging,” the result of changes in brain chemistry and physiology that affect your thinking organ’s ability to think.
Although cognitive aging has always been accepted as a normal part of growing older, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center in New York are saying that controlling high blood sugar-even if you don’t have diabetes-may be a key factor in slowing it down and preserving cognitive health.
The researchers found that memory lapses may be partially blamed on rising blood sugar levels as we age. If so, such simple steps as doing more exercise, watching diet and weight, and taking blood sugar control drugs could significantly slow the onset of cognitive aging.
The Columbia study focused on the hippocampus, the part of the brain crucial to learning and memory. Although the researchers knew that the hippocampus undergoes damage in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, they wanted to see if the normal process of aging also damages it.
What they found is that one area of the hippocampus, the dentate gyrus, is a main contributor to memory decline as it begins to lose its powers over the years. When the scientists looked at typical measures that rise in people as they age, such as cholesterol, insulin levels, body mass index, and blood sugar, they found a direct correlation between high blood glucose and decreasing dentate gyrus activity.
By showing this direct correlation, the researchers have developed a useful explanation of why older people who do not have diabetes or the after-effects of stroke experience a decline in their ability to remember. Their study suggests that monitoring and improving how the aging body metabolizes glucose could go a long way toward slowing the mental effects of aging in otherwise normal older people.
It also demonstrates the importance of blood glucose control in people with diabetes, especially because it adds a decline in memory function to the long list of ailments that diabetes brings with it.