The incredible shrinking brain

No, this Dispatch is not about the effects of spending too many years working in the government. I’ve written before about how dynamic the brain really is. Far from being constant in terms of composition, new imaging studies show that critical areas of the brain can enlarge or shrink in response to mind-body therapies. Therapies like various forms of meditation.

Previously, I reported on the deadly effects of sugar in the diet in terms of body weight and metabolism. Excess sugar can lead to diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and liver disease (see “Weighty matters”).

I’ve also reported on the mystery and shame associated with Alzheimer’s disease. It has often seemed the medical mainstream has simply given up on this devastating condition.

But a new Australian study brings these three links together, observing that high blood sugar levels appear to actually cause the brain to shrink. Even in people without diabetes. 

While prior studies have shown that diabetics (with chronically high blood sugar) have higher rates of dementia, this is the first time a study has pinpointed these effects even in non-diabetic people. 

Researchers examined 250 men and women without diabetes and found that high blood sugar levels appear to damage the brain. Most notably by decreasing the size of the areas associated with memory, cognitive function, and emotional processing.

In fact, this study showed that highly-educated, non-diabetics in their 60s with elevated blood sugar actually have the brains of people in their 70s who follow an unhealthy lifestyle. 

One of the problems not mentioned in the study is that chronically high levels of blood sugar over time cause certain proteins to become glycosylated or permanently bound to sugar. This hinders the proteins from carrying out their normal metabolic functions in the body. And a vast array of health problems can ensue.

In non-diabetics, high blood sugar can result not only from eating too much sugar, but from a poor diet in general, lack of exercise, and chronic stress.

The good news is, these days, it’s easy to assess your blood sugar on a regular basis. In fact, many doctors are already doing so, by measuring the level of hemoglobinA1C (glycosylated hemoglobin) in the blood. (This was a technique that we researched while I was a resident physician in pathology back in the 1980’s. I’m glad to see that it’s now in regular clinical use.)

And, even better news—the solutions for high blood sugar are really quite simple. In fact, they’re generally the same basic strategies I’ve recommended for other common medical conditions: healthy diet, moderate exercise, and managing chronic stress.  (For tips on healthy diet, learn how to get my FREE report The Top-of-the-Food-Chain Cure for Obesity.)

The “exercise” part of the equation can really be as simple as a daily walk, swim, or bike ride. No need for high-intensity aerobics or trendy, expensive exercise programs or equipment.

And, last but not least, there are many safe, easy, cost-effective approaches for managing stress. You can even find the proven therapies that will work best for you as an individual in my book Your Emotional Type.

“Higher normal fasting plasma glucose is associated with hippocampal atrophy: The PATH Study,” Neurology 2012; 79: 1,019-1,026