Memory is a tricky thing for an adult or child with diabetes because high, low, and shifting blood sugar levels interfere with how we think and process information. When blood sugar is high or conversely too low, an adult or child will have a hard time recalling, retaining, or remembering information until their blood sugar levels return to normal. These cognitive problems can impact every aspect of life.
It still amazes me how important overall health is during childhood. Our minds develop during that period and everything from our environment to our physical health impact how healthy our minds will be in the future.
The Physical Impact
When high blood sugars affected my ability to learn at school, often no one caught it and didn’t know to look for it. I don’t blame anyone, except maybe myself at times. I knew enough to recognize the negative impacts of out-of-control blood sugars on how I felt physically. If I had heeded those warning signs growing up, I would have fewer problems as an adult living with diabetes.
At times it’s hard for me to believe, but continuous high and out-of-control blood sugars during childhood can cause permanent brain damage. I suppose I don’t want to believe this fact, but recent studies show that uncontrolled blood sugar will cause problems with intelligence, attention, processing speed, long-term memory, executive functions, and self-monitoring.
Wow, if I had only known that when I was growing up. As a trained diabetes-focused psychotherapist, it’s unavoidable and real.
The inabilities to concentrate and recall impact everyone with diabetes when blood sugar is high or conversely too low. Regardless of what type of diabetes you have, blood sugars will affect your ability to think. For me, I was able to see the impact throughout my childhood and adult life.
During the 1980’s, who would have known even to test for sugar levels before a school test or class, or even know to do that now unless someone pointed it out to him or her? So, for the next 3 to 4 years, I was tutored in English, reading, and writing as well as entering special education as a result of my unstable blood sugars.
So, I started my journey through Mr. Kotter’s classroom, as I called it (making reference to the special education class from “Welcome Back, Kotter,” a sitcom, which ran from 1975 to 1979). I was there because I was having trouble reading and writing. The sad part is that I was merely experiencing high blood sugar.
I did not excel in school due to fluctuating blood sugar. Unfortunately, for those 17 years of age and younger diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, damage to the part of the brain that controls the ability to retain and recall information is almost unavoidable. Proper control will reduce the physical harm, but for those of us who grew up with diabetes, some damage will occur regardless of control.
I say “unavoidable” because no one’s cognitive mind or external devices, like the pump, can mimic the autonomic functions of the pancreas and beta cells.
For everyone with diabetes, be kind to yourself. Don’t blame or call yourself dumb when you have forgetful moments. Chances are it’s not you, but the high, low and changing blood sugars that occur while living with diabetes.
So, what can we do? Several things!
Keep on top of your diabetes. Monitor and adjust your blood sugar levels to ensure they regularly fall within normal ranges. There is no perfect control, so just do your best.
One option that can help you maintain control of your blood sugar levels is psychotherapy. Things like relationship issues, problems at work, dealing with financial stress and other life complications, tend to cause emotionally charged drama in our lives. These stressful situations cause hormone imbalances that make managing diabetes tough. By resolving these issues in treatment, you tend to stabilize this imbalance, and as a result, you will have more positive energy to put towards managing your diabetes and creating success in life.
If you are having memory and recall issues, there are also medications that can help you improve in those areas. These can help rebalance the chemical equation in your mind.
Seek a psychotherapist or other mental health professional to discuss what the best options for you.
Eliot LeBow, LCSW, CDE, is a diabetes-focused psychotherapist. His private practice, located in New York City and is also available via Skype. LeBow, who has been living with type 1 diabetes since 1977, treats the many diverse cognitive, behavioral, and emotional needs of people living with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
All the advice included in this blog is therapeutic in nature and should not be considered medical advice. Before making any changes to your diabetes maintenance program, please consult with your primary physician or endocrinologist.