Today’s Headlines: Diabetes, Psychotherapy and Older Brains

Uncontrolled blood sugar drops brain power. Diabetes has been known to have damaging effects on many tissues of the body. A new study out this week has found that the brain is yet another victim of the harmful effects of too much sugar in the blood. In a study of more than 13,000 adults, “those with diabetes had a greater cognitive decline during the study compared to people without diabetes. People with pre-diabetes had a steeper decline than people without pre-diabetes. People with uncontrolled diabetes at the first visit had an even steeper decline over the 20 years than those who had their condition under control. Cognitive decline was also steeper among people who were living with diabetes longer, compared to those who were more recently diagnosed.” The researchers hope the findings help boost the number of people getting tested for diabetes and the preventative measures taken to stop the development of the disease. According to the authors, “The earlier the prevention starts, the greater the benefit may be. Our study says you get a 20-year lead time. You can do something about it now, when you’re in your 50s.” (BBC)

Psychotherapy is effective at preventing suicide. The workings of the brain still remain a mystery, sometimes making it challenging to show directly the effects of many psychotherapy treatments. But a new study out of Denmark has found that psychotherapy interventions can dramatically reduce how many people with depression commit suicide. “Researchers studied 5,678 people who had attempted suicide and then received a program of short-term psychotherapy based on needs, including crisis intervention, cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, and psychodynamic and psychoanalytic treatment. Over a 20-year follow-up, 16.5 percent of the treated group attempted suicide again, compared with 19.1 percent of the untreated group. In the treated group, 1.6 percent died by suicide, compared with 2.2 percent of the untreated. The authors estimate that therapy prevented 145 suicide attempts and 30 deaths by suicide in the group studied.” That’s equivalent to about one third of all suicide deaths. While the numbers seem small overall, the authors say the low rates reflect how rare suicide is compared with how common depression is. (NYT)

Older brains great at learning, worse at filtering. Older adults often get a bad rap when it comes to brain power. While many reports have shown that brain function seems to get worse over time, it hasn’t been clear why this might be. A new study out this week might have the answer. According to the study, “adults who are well into their 60s and 70s can learn visual information just as well as whippersnappers in the 19-to-30-year-old range, but the elders pick up much more irrelevant visual information than do their younger counterparts. At least for visual perceptual learning, older brains remain changeable, but they may sacrifice long-term retention of information. And that’s because of a decline in the ability to suppress information that isn’t germane to the task at hand, according to the study.” The study emphasizes that our brains only have a limited capacity and that a key function needed to think is the ability to filter out information that’s probably irrelevant. This might seem like a bad thing, but “you could make the case that older drivers have an edge over the young when visual information matters. They may pick up subtle signals of potential hazards that youngsters suppress as ‘irrelevant.’ So, noticing a creeping shadow of a car might keep an older driver from executing a dangerous lane change.” (LA Times)