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Sugar and Dementia: Separating Fact from Fiction

Dr. Sandra Petersen is the founder of our Connections memory care program. She is here today to help dispel some myths surrounding what researchers know about sweet treats and dementia.

Do you try to avoid sugar or limit it in the diet of a loved one? As a doctor, I try to avoid granulated sugar, but there’s always time to indulge. There is a lot of buzz surrounding the link between sugar and dementia. It’s no secret that too much sugar can negatively affect overall health, but is there really a connection between sugar consumption and risk factors for dementia?

Pegasus Senior Living | Healthy vs unhealthy food
Consuming foods with excess sugar can contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle and lead to dementia.

What is Dementia?

Before we dive into the topic, let’s first define dementia. Dementia is a broad term that describes a decline in cognitive ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of cases. At least six million Americans experience this form of memory loss.

Other common forms of dementia include:

Dementia is not a normal part of aging. Contact a medical professional immediately if you see the warning signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia in a loved one.

The Link Between Sugar and Dementia

While research into the connection between sugar and dementia is ongoing, current evidence does not support a direct causal relationship. Consuming too much sugar can lead to health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, increasing the risk of developing dementia.

However, no evidence suggests that sugar consumption directly causes dementia.

It is true that consuming too much sugar can negatively affect the body and brain. While the idea of sugar addiction is still being studied, evidence suggests that sugar can trigger the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain’s reward center, leading to feelings of pleasure and cravings for more. This response is similar to substance abuse, leading some researchers to suggest that sugar can be addictive.

Queensland University of Technology neuroscientist Professor Selena Bartlett claims to have found evidence that high-sugar diets act on the brain in very similar ways to tobacco, alcohol, or other physically addictive substances.

According to Bartlett’s research, sugar seems to adversely impact the hippocampus and longer-term brain structures involved in decision-making and pleasure.

Most research on sugar’s impact focuses on a small horseshoe-shaped region in the middle of the brain, about level with the ear, called the hippocampus. It is responsible for memory formation and navigation; to do that, it must continually build new neurons or rewire existing pathways.

Sugar seems to “short-circuit” that ability to generate new neurons or rewire the brain — significantly impacting memory over time.

Can Sugar Cause Dementia?

The short answer is no. No definitive evidence supports the claim that sugar consumption causes dementia. However, a diet high in sugar can lead to other health issues that increase the risk of developing dementia.

Consuming too much sugar can lead to inflammation in the body and brain. It’s linked to various health problems, including neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Inflammation can cause oxidative stress, damaging cells, including neurons, and leading to cognitive decline.

It’s important to note that not all sugar is created equal. Natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables are not as harmful to the body as refined sugars found in processed foods and drinks. Consuming too much refined sugar can lead to a variety of health problems beyond inflammation, including:

  • Weight gain
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease

Limiting sugar intake and maintaining a balanced diet are vital to prevent these adverse effects. These changes include choosing whole foods over processed foods and limiting sugary snacks and drinks.

Minor changes to diet can go a long way in improving overall health and reducing the risk of developing chronic health conditions, including those associated with inflammation and cognitive decline. A well-rounded lifestyle can support indulging in a sweet treat every once in a while.

One study published by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) found that diets high in inflammatory proteins contribute to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Vascular dementia is linked to heart problems.

A significant portion of my Connections memory care program relies on socialization and exercise. Physical movement can slow memory loss for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Lonely older adults are 27 percent more likely to develop dementia than their socially and physically active peers. Inactivity can lead to conditions linked to dementia, such as stroke and depression.

Does Sugar Affect Dementia?

While sugar consumption does not directly cause dementia, it can affect it. As mentioned earlier, consuming too much sugar can lead to health issues that increase the risk of developing dementia.

Diets high in sugar have been linked to reduced cognitive functioning and memory problems in older adults. Reducing sugar intake could have a positive impact on cognitive health.

People with dementia may have a sweet tooth for a few different reasons.

One possible explanation is that as dementia progresses, the brain’s ability to identify flavors correctly may decline. People with dementia may find sweet flavors more appealing, as they are easier to detect and enjoy.

Another explanation is that people with dementia may be experiencing a shift in their biological clock, leading to changes in their sleep-wake cycle. This can disrupt standard eating patterns, increasing appetite and craving certain foods, including sweets.

People with dementia often experience changes in their mood and behavior, which can lead to emotional eating. They may turn to comfort foods such as sweets as a way to cope with their emotions.

There are a variety of reasons why people with dementia may crave sweets. It’s essential for caregivers and loved ones to provide a balanced diet while also considering the preferences and needs of the person with dementia.

While there is ongoing research into the connection between sugar and dementia, current evidence does not suggest a direct causal relationship. However, it’s clear that consuming too much sugar can lead to a variety of health problems that increase the risk of developing dementia.

Maintaining a balanced diet and limiting sugar intake is important to reduce the risk of developing additional health conditions, including dementia.

How to Reduce Sugar Cravings: Expert Tips from Dr. Sandra Petersen

Do you find yourself reaching for that chocolate bar or sneaking in an extra donut more often than you’d like? You’re not alone. Many of us battle sugar cravings, but the good news is that there are effective ways to curb them.

Understanding Sweet Cravings

Firstly, it’s essential to understand that sugar cravings often indicate high blood sugar levels.

When we consume foods with added sugar, our blood sugar spikes, leading to a rush of energy. However, what goes up must come down, and these highs are frequently followed by lows – leaving us craving more sugar.

Every step you take towards a healthier lifestyle contributes to better brain health. Start today by taking control of your sugar cravings.

5 Practical Tips to Curb Sugar Cravings

1. Stay Hydrated
Dehydration can sometimes be confused with sugar cravings. Ensure you drink enough water throughout the day to keep these cravings at bay.

2. Eat Regular, Balanced Meals
Regular meals rich in protein, fiber, and healthy fats will help stabilize your blood sugar levels and prevent the rollercoaster of sugar highs and lows.

3. Opt for Natural Sugars
Try satisfying your sweet tooth with fresh fruit instead of reaching for foods with added sugar. However, be mindful of overconsumption, and remember that even natural sugars like those found in fruit juice should be consumed in moderation.

4. Exercise Regularly
Physical activity can help regulate your blood sugar levels and reduce cravings.

5. Get Enough Sleep
Lack of sleep can increase cravings for sugary foods. Ensure you’re getting sufficient rest each night.

Remember, it’s normal to crave sugar occasionally, but if you constantly battle these cravings, it may be a sign of excess sugar consumption. Making small, gradual changes to your diet and lifestyle can make a significant difference in managing these cravings.

Pegasus | Neuroplasticity in memory care

About Dr. Sandra Petersen

Dr. Petersen (DNP, APRN, FNP-BC, GNP-BC, PMHNP-BE, FAANP) is the Senior VP of Health and Wellness for Pegasus Senior Living. She has worked in senior living since modern assisted living and memory care began over 30 years ago.

Her signature program for memory care encourages people with Alzheimer’s and dementia to:


Find the Connections program at a Pegasus Senior Living community near you.

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