Is Alzheimer’s Type 3 Diabetes?


New York Times columnist Mark Bittman has added a touch of controversy to the morning with his article, “Is Alzheimer’s Type 3 Diabetes?” A friend of mine forwarded it to me at the precise moment when I was doing yet another round of research on LADA — short for “latent autoimmune diabetes in adults” and otherwise known as “diabetes 1.5” — and perhaps as a result, my immediate response was not one of fascination, but of fatigue. “Really?” I thought to myself. “There’s another goddamn type of diabetes?”

But it turns out, as is so often the case in journalism, that the headline is misleading. Bittman is not actually proposing that Alzheimer’s is a form of diabetes. He’s suggesting, rather, that it could be a complication. To quote: 

“Diabetes causes complications too numerous to mention, but they include heart disease, which remains our No. 1 killer. And when the cells in your brain become insulin-resistant, you start to lose memory and become disoriented. You even might lose aspects of your personality.

“In short, it appears, you develop Alzheimer’s.

“A neuropathologist named Alois Alzheimer noticed, over a century ago, that an odd form of protein was taking the place of normal brain cells. How those beta amyloid plaques (as they’re called) get there has been a mystery. What’s becoming clear, however, is that a lack of insulin — or insulin resistance — not only impairs cognition but seems to be implicated in the formation of those plaques.”

In other words, he’s pointing out that insulin resistance, which can be caused and exacerbated by diets that are high in simple carbs (think sodas and junk food), might be affecting the function of our neurons. 

I am not an expert in this area, but the argument — that diet could affect our brains — does sound plausible, though I think it’s irresponsible copyediting to run that headline about “Type 3.” Regardless of how strong the connection actually is between insulin resistance and Alzheimer’s, I think that Bittman’s final suggestion is a sound one. He writes:

“Adopting a sane diet, a diet contrary to the standard American diet (which I like to refer to as SAD), would appear to give you a far better shot at avoiding diabetes in all of its forms, along with its dreaded complications. There are, as usual, arguments to be made for enlisting government help in that struggle, but for now, put down that soda!”

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June S.
June S.
10 years ago

This is all very interesting. However, I have a parent currently with Alzheimer’s. She has never had a fasting blood glucose out of range when her complete blood count has been done (at least semi-annually.) I and a sibling have Type I diabetes, which we seem to have inherited due to a tendency towards Type I that exists on the OTHER side of the family. I just hope we Type I’s don’t develop Alzheimer’s. If I ever learned that I was, I think I’d take enough insulin to kill myself. Can you imagine having both?

Alex O'Meara
Alex O'Meara
10 years ago

Catherine – This is a very interesting look at Alzheimer’s and, perhaps, the way the media labels things to define them in one or two dimensions only. I’m glad you sussed it out to the fact that it’s, at its most basic, about how diet affects our brains. Thanks for clarifying and focusing the attention where the attention should be.

Nathan Shackelford
10 years ago

Bittman is probably also confusing people in the DOC because we have already created an “insider” meaning for the term Type 3 as a family member/ caretaker of a Type 1 or 2. Logical or not, it’s “our” name for it. However, Bittman’s not the one who made up this turn of phrase. Those in the medical community have lately been defining Alzheimer’s characteristic of insulin resistance in the brain. This trait of the disease makes it a unique form of diabetes effecting specific tissues in the body. Although most times this fact has been mentioned has called it diabetes… Read more »

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