Cognitive Impairments in Elderly Diabetic Patients: Understanding the Risks for Better Management

Lyse Bordier, MD


October 08, 2015

Editor's Note: The following is an edited, translated transcript of a presentation by Professor Lyse Bordier, a diabetologist at Military Hospital Bégin, Saint-Mandé, France, summarizing her lecture at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) 2015 AnnualMeeting in Stockholm, Sweden.

Hello. I am Professor Lyse Bordier. I work at the Bégin Military Hospital, in Saint-Mandé, France, and I had the pleasure of participating in a symposium organized by the EASD 2015 conference in Stockholm on elderly patients, specifically on cognitive impairments.

A Public Health Problem

Dementia and cognitive impairments are a major problem; Alzheimer disease accounts for 70% of all cases of dementia. The other main causes are vascular dementias and mixed dementias. They are a real public health problem; it is estimated that, in the United States, 5.2 million people have this condition, and worldwide, every 7 seconds, a new case of dementia is diagnosed.[1,2] In France, for example, it was estimated in 2010 that 750,000-850,000 people had dementia and that this figure will increase by a factor of 2.4 by the year 2050.

Diabetes is an important contributor to the development of cognitive impairments, all the way up to dementia. In Europe, it is estimated that nearly 25% of people over age 85 years have dementia. Its prevalence and incidence are higher in women than in men.[2] We know that the complications of diabetes have changed over the years and that acute metabolic complications are, in the end, much less important. With the improvement in life expectancy in our diabetic patients, who are now better treated thanks to better therapeutic management, new complications have arisen, such as renal failure, heart failure, and, of course, geriatric complications, which are, in large part, cognitive disorders.[3]

Prevalence Underestimated by Physicians

These cognitive impairments are common and largely underestimated. This was clearly shown in the GERODIAB study,[4] which included a cohort of 987 patients over the age of 70 years. At inclusion, the physicians reported that 11% of their patients had cognitive impairments and that 3% had dementia. In actual fact, 25% of the patients had impaired cognitive functions, with a Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) score under 25. The prevalence is therefore significantly underestimated by physicians.

Cognitive impairments are more prevalent and more severe in diabetics than in nondiabetics. It is estimated that the risk for cognitive impairments and that for dementia are 20% to 70% and 60% higher, respectively, in the presence of diabetes.[5] Furthermore, the risk for Alzheimer dementia is considerable, it being 40% higher in diabetics. As expected (given the combination of the other cardiovascular risk factors), the increase in the risk is even greater for vascular dementia, with an odds ratio of 2.38.[6]


What are the mechanisms in the development of cognitive impairments and dementia? There are many mechanisms, and they are often poorly understood. Hyperglycemia plays a very important role as a direct result of oxidative stress, of advanced glycation end-products, but also as a result of micro- and macroangiopathy, hypertension, and dyslipidemia.[7,8] Other major factors, such as hypoglycemia,[9,10,11,12] play an extremely important role in the development of cognitive impairments. As well, a great deal of literature has been published lately on the role of inflammation[13] and genetic factors. Another widely known aspect is insulin resistance, which increases the risk for dementia at a fairly early stage by 40%[14,15]; this already during the metabolic syndrome, even before the onset of type 2 diabetes.

Figure. Multiple and poorly understood mechanisms of cognitive impairments and dementia. HTA = arterial hypertension. Adapted from Buysschaert M, et al.[16]

What Are the Consequences of Cognitive Impairments?

Cognitive impairments lead to a number of complications, including a reduction in life expectancy. In the GERODIAB cohort, we found, after 2 years of follow-up, that the mortality rate was twice as high in the patients with an MMSE score <24 compared with those with an MMSE score >24. In this study, the patients with a lower MMSE score had less well-controlled diabetes, were usually treated with insulin, and had heart failure and cerebrovascular complications more often. Very surprisingly, hypoglycemia was not more prevalent in these patients, perhaps because, being less independent, they were better managed by care teams.[17]

Cognitive impairments lead to geriatric complications, such as malnutrition, falls, and a loss of autonomy. They also promote social and family isolation and iatrogenic accidents, as well as depression, which can both mask cognitive impairments and exacerbate an underlying dementia. Another important aspect is that cognitive impairments increase the risk for hypoglycemia. This has been shown very clearly in all of the studies. There is, in fact, a bidirectional link between dementia and hypoglycemia: Hypoglycemia doubles the risk for dementia, and dementia triples the risk for hypoglycemia.[18]

Screening and Management

What do we do when a patient presents with cognitive impairments? First, they should be identified so that they can be managed. We need to be vigilant for certain little signs: changes in the patient's behavior (eg, a patient who forgets his appointments, whose personal hygiene has declined, who is less diligent in keeping his blood glucose diary, and, lastly, who has an unexplained diabetic imbalance). We should also know how to use simple tests, such as the MMSE, which provides an overall assessment of space-time orientation, cognitive functions, language functions, and calculation, and how to assess the patient's autonomy and loss of autonomy.[19] Next, we should, as per the recommendations of the American Diabetes Association[20] and the EASD, individualize the glycemic goals, taking into account, in the most fragile, elderly patients, cognitive status, the level of autonomy, depression, nutritional status—in particular, sarcopenia, which can coexist with obesity, and the risk for hypoglycemia.[21]

We should therefore avoid overtreating the most fragile patients (those at greatest risk for hypoglycemia), but neither should we undertreat patients who have a long life expectancy and who could develop micro- and macroangiopathic complications.

One last aspect, which is very important, is the family. Help needs to be provided to prevent the patient's loss of autonomy.[21] Lastly, I think that cognitive decline should be added to the already long list of degenerative complications of diabetes.


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