It has long been suspected that there is a link between stress and diabetes. It has also been observed that people with diabetes sometimes experience cognitive decline as the disease progresses. A new study from National Institute on Aging (NIA) explores these connections and offers hope for improved diabetes management.
The NIA study, published on March 1 by Nature Neuroscience, documented the reactions of diabetic rats to the elevation and reduction of their corticosterone levels. When levels of this stress hormone were raised, it negatively affected the rats’ learning and short-term memory. When levels of corticosterone returned to normal, the rats regained their cognitive functions. To the authors of the study, these results suggest that for humans with diabetes, cognitive impairment due to excess stress hormones could be prevented or perhaps even reversed. That’s because the corticosterone in rats is similar to the human hormone cortisol, which is released during periods of stress.
Cortisol is both good and bad. The body needs some cortisol to regulate its energy levels. Cortisol helps deliver needed fuel to working cells by drawing on the body’s fat stores. During periods of stress, cortisol also helps the body convert proteins into glucose that the body can use right away. But too much cortisol can have adverse effects. Excess cortisol may contribute to visceral obesity, the development of fat around important internal organs such as the stomach and intestines. The more stress you feel, the more cortisol your body produces. The more cortisol your body produces, the greater the possibility that you will develop this unhealthy abdominal fat. People with diabetes are at a further disadvantage, even beyond your average stressed-out person. People who do not have good control over their diabetes often produce more cortisol than normal.
According to in the NIA study, this excess cortisol could lead to cognitive impairment in people with diabetes. It could also lead to excess abdominal fat—another big health risk. The authors suggest that by regulating the levels of cortisol in the body, these risks can be reduced or eliminated for people with diabetes. Beyond stress reduction techniques, it is possible that someday a medication will be developed that blocks the action of excess cortisol in the body. In the meantime, scientists will continue to study the relationship between stress, cognitive function, and diabetes.