The number of people living in the U.S. with Alzheimer’s disease continues to rise. Over five million Americans live with the disease, which ranks as the sixth leading cause of death in the nation. Based on current projections, researchers anticipate the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s to increase to over 30 million by 2050. Considering the long-term cost in both lives affected and financially, health experts have called for more resources to be dedicated to the study of Alzheimer’s before the growing problem becomes a full-blown epidemic.
The need for good news in the fight against dementia as made the result of a recent study even more encouraging, as new research suggests that metformin, a drug designed to help diabetics better manage their blood sugar levels, may also help reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
According to researchers at Kaiser Permanente, individuals taking metformin had their risk of developing dementia reduced by 20 percent when compared to those taking a different diabetes medication. These findings have raised hopes that metformin may offer neuroprotective effects on the brain.
The results of these findings were reported at this year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Boston.
Individuals who suffer from type 2 diabetes have twice the risk of developing dementia when compared to those without the disease. However, despite the connection between diabetes and dementia, little research exists on what effect diabetes medication has on reducing a person’s risk of dementia.
To determine whether certain types of diabetes treatments could offer any protection against the disease, researchers examined that data on nearly 15,000 type 2 diabetics who had just begun single-drug therapy to control their disease. Every individual involved in the study was over the age of 55, and had previously received a type 2 diabetes diagnoses. While none of the individuals involved in the study had recently received their diabetes diagnosis, the participants had yet to begin any type of medication treatment for their disease prior to the beginning of the study.
Study participants then began to take one of four drugs designed to help control their diabetes: insulin, thiazolidinediones, sulfonylureas, or metformin. Each of these drugs helps to lower blood sugar levels, but they each work in a slightly different way.
Metformin causes muscle tissue to become more receptive to insulin, a hormone that plays a vital role in how well the body absorbs glucose (sugar) into cells and tissue to create fuel, while also reducing the liver’s ability to produce glucose.
Over the course of the study, approximately 10 percent of study participants were diagnosed with some form of dementia, though researchers were unable to differentiate how many of these cases resulted in the development of Alzheimer’s.
Compared to participants who took sulfonylureas to control their blood sugar, individuals taking metformin had their risk of developing dementia reduced by 20 percent. However, researchers found no difference in a person’s risk of developing dementia if he or she took either insulin or thiazolidinediones to control blood sugar levels.
Metformin was still found to decrease a person’s risk of dementia even after various risk factors for the condition, such as age, race, education, blood sugar control, and duration of diabetes, had been taken into consideration.
While researchers still don’t currently understand why metformin may help to protect against dementia, one theory suggests the drug may play a role in the creation of new brain cells. The drug has also been linked to reducing inflammation in the body, which can contribute to the development of chronic disease.
Another theory suggests that since insulin promotes the health of certain nerve cells, drugs such as metformin that act as an insulin sensitizer in the body may also have the same effect in the brain. By having this effect in the brain, metformin may help to regenerate lost brain cells that contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s.
Researchers hope to devote more study to the protection offer by metformin against dementia, and whether taking larger doses of the drug may even offer greater protection against the disease.
Timothy Lemke is a freelance health and science writer. To read more of his work, visit the website of Dr. Derrik Stark, a dentist in Vancouver, WA.