A new study by the University of Hawaii at Manoa has found something intriguing: A condition widely thought to be an early signal for diabetes may actually be linked to lower odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease among the elderly.

Insulin resistance, when cells stop responding to signals from the hormone insulin, eventually leads to Type 2 diabetes.

But a UH study published in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences illustrates how insulin resistance for a shorter time period later in life could actually be beneficial, says lead author Thomas Lee, an assistant professor of epidemiology with the UH Office of Public Health Studies.

Elderly Old People in Chinatown, Honolulu. Senior Citizen.
A University of Hawaii study found a surprising possible link between insulin resistance and avoiding Alzheimer’s disease when elderly. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The study, titled, “Late life insulin resistance and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia: The Kuakini Honolulu heart program,” analyzed health records of the 1,544 Japanese men ages 70-90 who participated in the Kuakini Honolulu-Asia Aging Study. It found that the men who had insulin resistance had lower odds of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia compared to the men who did not have insulin resistance.

“That’s really eye-catching,” said Lee. “Everyone thinks that insulin resistance is bad, and if you have it, you’re at greater risk for other negative health outcomes. But other studies show when they injected insulin that actually improved memory and cognitive ability and that supported what I found.”

Lee said that the findings are not meant to lead people to think insulin resistance is a good thing, as it is a serious condition. But while there is no potential positive spin for pre-diabetic indicators found in middle-aged people, the study indicates that could be different for older people, he said.

Thomas Lee, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Hawaii. 

“We need to be aware that as we age, so does our body, and so does our body’s response to disease,” he said. “Researchers are still touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the brain and exact mechanisms of Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

Approximately 29,000 people in Hawaii are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Hawaii chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Because the Kuakini study focused solely on Japanese males, Lee hopes it will prompt further examinations among other populations.

“There’s still no gold standard in terms of connecting insulin resistance in terms of our pancreas, liver and the brain,” he said. “Until we have studies that test this hypothesis in other populations, it just prompts further questions and further studies.”

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.

About the Author