Has your mother or father grown a sweet tooth in their retirement years? Has a loved one turned into a cookie monster like many older Americans? If so, you may be concerned about the causes of their sugar cravings as well as the health effects of so much extra glucose. Recent research has shed new light on how sugar affects the heart and brain and has linked both heart disease and Alzheimer’s elevated blood glucose levels. In addition to how we can deal with cravings and make healthy choices, ideally before problems develop.
The simplest explanation that sugar cravings increase with age is the gradual loss of our original average of 10,000 taste buds that starts around the age of 50. More than 250 medications can affect the senses of taste and smell as well. With less sensitivity to sweet foods, it is no wonder that mom or dad adds a few extra cookies to their plate, especially when we consider the comforting effect that remembering times of childhood indulgence can have. In cases of dementia, damage to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for self-restraint, can be another factor.
Scientists now believe that the so-called “senior moments” of forgetfulness are the result of elevated blood sugar levels in the brain. Current medical research indicates that insulin is actually produced locally within the brain. With age, as this ability diminishes, the body slowly loses the ability to metabolize glucose. The link between brain glucose levels and dementia that Alzheimer’s is considered by many to be a form of “brain diabetes” and researches debated labeling the disease Type 3 Diabetes only a few short years ago.
New research by Dr. Scott Small of Columbia University has shown that the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for short-term memory, shrinks from long-term sugar consumption. Though the effect is more pronounced in seniors with diabetes or dementia, the shrinking of the dentate gyrus section of the hippocampus and the corresponding damage to memory formation remains true for everyone. In order to see a positive effect on cognition and memory, experts recommend lowering carbohydrate (not only simple sugar) consumption to the lower end of the normal range.
What can be done then in the face of such dangers when sugar cravings strike? Less really is more when it comes to sugar. Overall sugar consumption, both simple and complex carbohydrates, should be restricted. In fact, it is a common misconception that the brain requires glucose to function as some doctors consider ketones, which the body metabolizes from fat, to the ideal brain fuel.
A diet low in carbohydrates but higher in certain fats, vegetables and proteins can break the glucose cycle. Though some damage is likely to be permanent, evidence suggests that the advance of dementia can be slowed by removing glucose from the equation.
Yet the cravings for sweets may remain and in your loved ones’ twilight years, it may seem cruel to deprive them of one of their few remaining pleasures. In this case, the natural sweetener stevia is a fine alternative to replace sugar and avoid the harmful affects of glucose on the brain. Known as the “sweet herb”, stevia has been used by the Guaraní tribe of South America for over 1,500 years. With its negligible effect on blood glucose, stevia has been recognized as safe by the FDA since 2008.
In summary, there are lots of alternatives to sugar and limiting its intake will help your loved one maintain their health in the long term.