Severe hypoglycaemic episodes or ‘hypos’, where blood glucose levels drop dangerously low, may lead to poorer memory and diminished brain power in people with Type 2 diabetes, according to new research announced today at Diabetes UK’s Annual Professional Conference.
The study looked at 1,066 people with Type 2 diabetes aged between 60 and 75 years. Participants completed seven tests looking at memory, logic and concentration to establish their level of brain function. The 113 people who had previously experienced severe hypos scored lower than the rest of the group.
There are at least 670,000 people in England aged between 60 and 75 years old who have Type 2 diabetes and around a third of them could be at risk of a hypo.
Reinforcing previous evidence
“This study reinforces previous evidence which suggests that poorly controlled diabetes affects the functioning of the brain," said Dr Iain Frame, Director of Research at Diabetes UK.
"Cognitive decline is the decline of brain functions such as memory, attention, vocabulary and planning. It can be a predictor of dementia although this is only in some cases.
Complex jigsaw puzzle
“We already know that Type 2 diabetes increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, which is a type of dementia, and this research adds another piece to a very complex jigsaw puzzle.
More research needed
"However, more research is needed before we can come to any firm conclusions. If anyone with diabetes is concerned about their treatment they should consult their GP or diabetes healthcare professional.”
Accounting for other factors
The study found that the group who experienced previous severe hypos scored lower on general cognitive ability and vocabulary than the group who had not, even after the results took into account the participants' age, gender and 'pre-morbid cognitive ability' (the cognitive ability that does not naturally decline with age).
Dr Jackie Price from the University of Edinburgh, who led the research, said: “These findings suggest that exposure to severe hypoglycaemia is associated with cognitive decline in people with Type 2 diabetes aged between 60 and 75 years old.
"This can mean either that hypos lead to cognitive decline, or that cognitive decline makes it more difficult for people to manage their diabetes, which in turn causes more hypos.
"A third explanation could be that a third unidentified factor is causing both the hypos and the cognitive decline. We are carrying out more research to establish which explanation is the most likely.”
The seven tests used
The seven neuropsychological tests assessed people’s memory for faces, recollection of linear stories, vocabulary, the ability to re-organise a sequence of letters as well as some other cognitive functions.
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Notes to editor:
1 Severe hypoglycaemia is associated with cognitive decline in people with Type 2 diabetes: the Edinburgh Type 2 Diabetes Study. PP Aung , MWJ Strachan , BM Frier , I Butcher , IJ Deary and JF Price .  Public Health Services, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK,  Metabolic Unit, Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, UK,  Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK,  Department of Diabetes, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
2 The Diabetes UK Annual Professional Conference (APC) is taking place from 11 to 13 March 2009 at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC), Glasgow. It is the UK's largest diabetes conference with over 3,000 healthcare professionals attending.
3 Diabetes UK is the leading charity for the three million people in the UK with diabetes. It is our 75th Anniversary in 2009 and events to mark this special occasion will be taking place around the country. We aim to spend more than £8 million on research in 2009 as well as campaigning and providing information and support. Up to half a million people in the UK have diabetes but do not know it. During our 75th Anniversary year, we hope you will be able to join in and support us so that we can carry on improving the lives of people with diabetes into the future. For more information visit www.diabetes.org.uk.
4 In the UK, there are currently 2.5 million people diagnosed with diabetes and it is estimated that up to half a million people have the condition but do not know it.
5 The Diabetes UK Careline (0845 120 2960) offers information and support on any aspect of managing diabetes. The line is a low cost number and opens Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm (operates a translation service). Recorded information on a number of diabetes-related topics is also available on this number 24 hours a day.
6 Membership of Diabetes UK is from £23 a year with special rates available. In addition to our bi-monthly magazine Balance, members receive support and the latest information on diabetes care and treatments to help them live a healthy life.