Diabetes Linked to Increased Risk of Alzheimer's in Long-Term Study
Diabetes mellitus was linked to a 65 percent increased risk of
developing Alzheimer's disease (AD), appearing to affect some aspects
of cognitive function differently than others in a new study supported
by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes
of Health. The findings, from the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center's
Religious Orders Study, add to a developing body of research examining
a possible link between diabetes and cognitive decline. The results
reported today are among the first to examine how certain cognitive
"systems" memory for words and events, the speed of
processing information, and the ability to recognize spatial patterns
may be affected selectively in people with diabetes.
The research, by Zoe Arvanitakis, M.D., David Bennett, M.D., and
colleagues at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, IL,
appears in the May 2004 issue of the Archives of Neurology.
The investigators are part of the institution's Rush Alzheimer's
Disease Center, headed by Dr. Bennett. The AD Center is one of 30
across the U.S. supported by the NIA to study and care for Alzheimer's
"The research on a possible link between diabetes and increased
risk of AD is intriguing, and this study gives us important additional
insights," says Neil Buckholtz, Ph.D., head of the Dementias
of Aging Branch in the NIA's neurosciences program. "Further
research, some currently underway, will tell us whether therapies
for diabetes may in fact play a role in lowering risk of AD or cognitive
Some 824 Catholic nuns, priests, and brothers participating in the
Religious Orders Study were followed for an average of 5.5 years.
They received detailed clinical evaluations annually, including
neuropsychological testing of five cognitive "systems"
commonly affected by aging, AD, and other dementias episodic memory
(memory of specific life events), semantic memory (general knowledge),
working memory (ability to hold and mentally rearrange information),
perceptual speed (the speed with which simple perceptual comparisons
can be made, such as whether two strings of numbers are the same
or different), and visuospatial ability (the ability to recognize
Over the study period, 151 of the participants had a clinical diagnosis
of AD, including 31 who had diabetes. The researchers found a 65
percent increase in the risk of developing AD among those with diabetes
compared with people who did not have diabetes.
In measures of cognitive function, only in the area of perceptual
speed was there an association with an increased rate of decline
over time, by about 44%, when comparing the diabetes and non-diabetes
groups. Since stroke-related changes in the brain were found in
a previous study to be tied to a decline in perceptual speed, the
researchers could not say whether the link between cognitive decline
and diabetes appeared because of the changes in the brain associated
with Alzheimer's disease or those of some other common age-related
condition like stroke or other vascular complications. Studies looking
at pathological or brain imaging data would be needed to address
In other areas of cognition, the rate of change over the time period
of the study was no different in the two groups. However, at the
start of the study, the baseline cognitive function scores of people
with diabetes were lower than those of people without diabetes.
"We found that diabetes was related to decline in some cognitive
systems but not in others," says Dr. Arvanitakis of Rush, the
lead author of the report. "Since all participants have agreed
to brain donation at their deaths, we will have the opportunity
to examine the pathologic basis of the association of diabetes to
cognitive decline." The Rush researchers also expressed their
indebtedness to the more than 1,000 nuns, priests, and brothers
from across the U.S. participating in the Religious Orders Study.
The NIA is the lead Federal agency conducting and supporting
research on Alzheimer's disease and age-related cognitive change.
For more information, readers and viewers can visit the NIA's Alzheimer's
Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center at www.alzheimers.org
or call toll free 1-800-438-4380. Information on aging generally
may be viewed at the NIA's general website at www.nia.nih.gov
or by calling the NIA Information Center at 1-800-222-2225.
For information on diabetes, see the website of the National
Institute on Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), at
www.niddk.nih.gov/, or call
the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse, a service of the
NIDDK, at 1-800-860-8747.