Type 2 diabetes is linked with worse performance on cognitive tests measuring abilities involved in the “control of emotions, behaviours and thought”, claim researchers.
The study, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, is the first comprehensive review of existing research to examine the link between diabetes and a reduction of certain cognitive abilities, known as “executive functions”, according to its US authors.
“Essentially people with type 2 diabetes may be hit with the double whammy of having more need for executive control, but less intact resources for exerting it”
Researchers, from the University of Waterloo in California, reviewed 60 studies involving 9,815 patients with type 2 diabetes and 69,254 controls. They examined the participants’ performance on measures of executive function.
The executive functions inhibit habitual thinking patterns, knee-jerk emotional reactions and reflexive behaviours, such as making impulse purchases or automatically following social cues.
“This facet of brain function is particularly important because we rely on it when we are attempting to behave in a way that is contrary to our natural inclinations or what the environment impels us to do,” said Corrie Vincent, the lead author of the study.
Fellow study author Professor Peter Hall warned that the types of behaviours recommended to help individuals control diabetes, such as strict diet changes, were things that did not come naturally to most people.
“Human beings have fairly reliable preferences for high-calorie foods and to resist medical routines that are inconvenient or time-consuming,” he said.
The authors noted that many type 2 diabetes patients experienced burnout in managing their disease and the inability to self-manage the condition was often a source of concern among family members and clinicians.
Professor Hall added: “The problem is the fact that effective diabetes management relies pretty heavily on executive function.
“Essentially people with type 2 diabetes may be hit with the double whammy of having more need for executive control, but – possibly because of the disease’s effect on the brain – less intact resources for exerting it,” he said.
Recent studies suggest that older adults in particular can improve their executive function by engaging in cognitively stimulating activities and staying physically active.
“Fortunately, there are a few things that can help optimize the brain structures that support executive function,” said Professor Hall.
“Aerobic exercise and cognitively challenging activities – such as learning new things, solving difficult puzzles and other problem solving activities –all help to keep your brain sharp,” he said. “Aerobic exercise is probably the most important, however, because it has benefits to both the brain and the rest of the body simultaneously.”