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Sugar's Impact on Cognitive Function
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Sugar’s Impact on Cognitive Function

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Cognitive function, brain health, and memory can all be impacted by the foods you eat. Every time you eat a meal or snack that is high in sugar, you may be hastening mental decline in your later years. Read on to learn about how sugar impacts your brain and why you should avoid it when possible.

Your Brain on Sugar: Short-term Effects

Because glucose (sugar) is the brain’s primary energy source, eating sugar can actually have a very short-term positive effect on mental energy and focus. Unfortunately, this effect doesn’t last long and comes with some pretty major consequences.

Pretty soon, the sugar “crash” occurs and your ability to focus on the tasks at hand decreases. Stress levels increase as stress hormones are released, mood swings are likely, your attention span decreases, and dealing with blood sugar spikes and drops can mess with your productivity. Blood sugar levels that are too high or too low can impact mental health and function. Sugars can also interfere with neural and synaptic communications (making it so the brain and body can’t effectively communicate).

Sugar and Cognitive Decline

In the long term, the foods you eat in your early and middle years significantly impact your cognitive function later in life. Even modestly elevated blood glucose levels can hasten cognitive decline. With the increasing prevalence of prediabetes and high blood glucose levels in America, this bad news can impact a large portion of the population. Sugar impairs cognition in a few different ways.

Sugar ages cells more quickly, and brain cells are no exception. Neurons in the hippocampus are damaged by high-sugar diets, and damaged cells in the hippocampus are linked with memory decline and cognitive deficiencies. Each spike of blood glucose following a sugar binge damages brain cells a little more. Studies show that high levels of sugar in the diet are significantly associated with cognitive impairment in older adults, and the foods you eat in your younger years contribute directly to cognitive function as you age.

Sugar consumption is also linked with systemic inflammation, and inflammatory markers in the hippocampus can have negative effects on cognitive response time. A high-sugar diet can also hinder production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is necessary for learning and memory formation.

Blood Sugar, Obesity, Diabetes, and Alzheimer’s

There is a link between blood sugar, obesity, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive decline. Insulin resistance can impact the body’s ability to regulate blood vessel dilation, which can in turn impact the distribution of oxygen and nutrients to cells. This is particularly problematic when it comes to brain cells, and memory and cognition can suffer over time. Brain volume can decrease and dementia can develop when blood vessel damage occurs.

High levels of sugar consumption can make cells resistant to insulin over time, and obesity can worsen diabetic conditions. When combined with the knowledge of how the brain can be damaged by insulin resistance, it is clear why obesity and diabetes increase the risk for dementia and memory loss. The longer you have diabetes, the worse this damage can be, so preventing or delaying the onset of diabetes through lifestyle management is a good way to protect brain health.

Better Brain Health

To improve brain health and protect cognitive function over time:

  • Choose low- or no-sugar snacks that have a healthy balance of fats, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates to protect brain cells and prevent sugar damage
  • Manage or prevent conditions like diabetes or obesity through diet and exercise
  • Since elevated blood sugar levels can speed up cognitive decline, manage your blood sugar by making healthy lifestyle choices

The choices you make now impact your health and function for the rest of your life, and making healthy choices will enable you to live your best life for a long, long time.

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