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Diabetes Shrinks Brain Size and Ages Brain by Two Years

Update Date: Apr 29, 2014 11:32 AM EDT
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Type 2 diabetes is a chronic health condition that can lead to severe consequences if left untreated and unmonitored. Doctors have warned patients with high blood sugar to watch what they eat and to exercise frequently in order to reduce risks of damaging the heart and kidney. In a new study, researchers reported that not only do diabetics have to worry about their heart and kidneys, they also have to worry about their brain health.

"We found that patients having more severe diabetes had less brain tissue, suggesting brain atrophy," said lead author R. Nick Bryan, M.D., Ph.D., professor of radiology at the Perleman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania according to Medical Xpress. "They did not seem to have more vascular disease due to the direct effect of diabetes."

In this study, the researchers recruited 614 patients taken from four centers, which were the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, Wake Forest Medical School, Winston-Salem, NC, Columbia University, New York, NY, and Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH. The participants had a mean age of 62 with a mean duration of the disease for 9.9 years. The team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the patients' brain structure.

The researchers discovered that patients with more severe cases of diabetes had less brain tissue in their MRI scans when compared to patients with milder forms of the health condition. The difference in brain tissue was still apparent even though the patients had kept their blood pressure under control. There was also less grey matter in patients who had diabetes for 15 years or more when compared to patients who had diabetes for four years or less. Based on the loss of brain tissue, the researchers estimated that for every 10 years a person lives with diabetes, the brain looks two years older in comparison to people of the same age who do not have the disease.

"We found that diabetic patients have two strikes on the brain. There is the vascular effect, and now it looks as if there is a neurodegenerative insult on the brain too," Bryan said reported by TIME. "These results suggest that the adverse effects probably start fairly early on in the disease. They may be subtle, but they probably start early."

The researchers aim to monitor their patients and investigate ways of slowing down brain degeneration. Bryan and his team plan on testing the effects of using aggressive treatments that lower blood sugar levels on the brain.

The study, "Effect of Diabetes on Brain Structure: The Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetes MR Imaging Baseline Data," was published in Radiology.

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