Diabetes and Dementia in Older Adults

Forgetfulness, confusion, difficulties with everyday tasks… When dementia becomes a part of life for your aging loved one, the emotional and physical toll can be great — for the whole family. Dementia affects the way the brain normally functions, and the onset of the condition can adversely affect an individual’s memory, speech and ability to successfully complete daily activities. 

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in the elderly 1, but there are other factors, too.  Dementia strikes individuals with poorly controlled diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease even harder, as these conditions increase the risk for a condition called vascular dementia. Caused by a series of small strokes that damage or destroy brain tissue and prevent oxygen from reaching the brain, vascular dementia is a serious health concern for older adults with diabetes. High blood pressure is an especially important risk factor 2, so it is vital to regularly monitor your loved one’s blood pressure level. If it is high, follow their doctor’s recommendations for treatment.

Because strokes occur suddenly, symptoms of vascular dementia may develop unexpectedly or without warning, then remain constant for a period of time and then abruptly become worse. Individuals with vascular dementia may even appear to improve for short intervals, only to get worse after the occurrence of one or more additional strokes. It is also possible for a person to suffer from both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease simultaneously, which can complicate matters further.


Your loved one may be too embarrassed to discuss it or simply be unaware that they’ve developed dementia, so it is important to know the warning signs. If you observe a sudden development of any of the following symptoms, it may signal the onset of vascular dementia: 1

  • Confusion and short-term memory loss

  • Wandering or becoming lost in familiar places

  • Moving with rapid, shuffling steps

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

  • Laughing or crying inappropriately

  • Difficulty following instructions

  • Problems handling money

Always remember that frequent forgetfulness, mood swings and other behavioral changes are not a normal part of the aging process. These are serious problems that can have a significant impact on the health and well-being of your loved one. To ensure optimal health and quality of life, the underlying causes should be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible.

What a caregiver can do

Don’t let dementia rob your loved one of their enjoyment for life. If you notice any of the warning signs above, immediately:

  • Schedule a doctor visit. Ask the physician what physical and mental function tests can be done to diagnose the possible dementia as well as the underlying causes.

  • Follow the doctor’s recommendations and schedule your family member for the appropriate diagnostic tests. When a diagnosis has been made, consult with the doctor to determine the best course of treatment.

  • Learn all you can about your family member’s daily diabetes care and help them test their blood glucose levels, follow their meal plan and take their medications. Poorly controlled diabetes is a serious risk factor for vascular dementia, so it is critical that your loved one receives proper diabetes care.

  • Visit one or more of the websites below to learn more about vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: 


1.  Merck Manual of Geriatrics:  http://www.merck.com/mrkshared/mmg/sec5/ch40/ch40b.jsp

2. National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging website.


The BD Diabetes Learning Center describes the causes of diabetes, its symptoms, and diabetes complications such as retinopathy and neuropathy. This site contains detailed information about blood glucose monitoring, insulin injection and safe sharps disposal. Interactive quizzes, educational literature downloads and animated demonstrations help to teach diabetes care skills.

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