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Sugar Intake Enhances The Risk For Alzheimer’s Disease – Should Nigerians Be Worried?

25 July 2018


Mahmoud Bukar Maina

A few friends who know I study the molecular basis of Alzheimer’s diseases contacted me on social media yesterday regarding a news story published in Daily Mail and other media outlets about a link between sugar intake and Alzheimer’s disease. This disease, named after Dr Alois Alzheimer, a German Psychiatrist and Neuropathologist, who first reported it in 1906, is the most common form of dementia and currently affects nearly 50 million worldwide. Alzheimer’s, which is irreversible and currently has no treatment or cure, is a debilitating neurodegenerative disease that commonly steals away memories of sufferers. Imagine losing the memory of who you are, your family, culture or even religion? Memories make us who we are, and this disease takes it away! Over time, brain cells of sufferers continue to die as a result of which other brain functions become affected, leading to problems with language, disorientation, mood swings, loss of motivation, hallucinations, behavioural problems, loss of bodily functions and eventually death.


In the Daily Mail story, it was specifically said: “Adding just two-and-a-half teaspoons of sugar to your tea DAILY increases your risk of Alzheimer's by 54%, study finds”. The news was based on a finding from Columbia University in the United States presented this week at Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Chicago, in which scientists followed 2,226 people living in New York who did not initially have the disease over around seven years. Of these people, 429 developed Alzheimer’s, and this was linked to their sugar intake. The scientists studied the level of sugar in soft drinks, fruit drinks and food taken by the participants, and they conclude that taking sugary things in excess may enhance one's likelihood of developing the disease. This was not the first time sugar was linked to Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study in which 5,189 people were followed over 10 years found that high blood sugar is linked with cognitive decline, which is a common problem that occurs in Alzheimer’s. Indeed, many studies have shown that diabetes, a disease associated with sugar, increases the chances of developing this disease. Indeed, Alzheimer’s disease has been called “Type 3 Diabetes”.


Should you be worried about this news as a Nigerian? The National Sugar Development Council (NSDC) said a while ago that sugar consumption in Nigeria is moderate. However, last year Nigeria was ranked as the fourth market in the world in terms of soft drinks consumption. In excess, this could enhance the risk for many health problems, not just Alzheimer's, e.g. heart disease, diabetes and even liver disease. For Alzheimer’s, many Nigerians never live to the age of onset of the disease. Alzheimer’s disease can have an early onset, affecting people younger than 65 years, and constituting about 5% of all cases. This is called familial Alzheimer’s disease, or FAD, which occurs due to the inheritance of genes that cause the disease. A gene is the basic unit of heredity, made up of DNA which act as instructions that direct our biological processes.

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The majority of cases of Alzheimer's (over 90%) are caused by a combination of factors, many of which are unknown. This form of the disease is called Late-onset Alzheimer's disease. It manifests in people above 65 years. However, the life expectancy in Nigeria is about 55 years, which may suggest that the majority of people who may be susceptible to developing the disease may not even live to have the disease. Notwithstanding, we currently lack a true estimate of the disease prevalence in Nigeria. This may be partly attributed to the lack of infrastructure for proper diagnosis of the disease and misconceptions about brain diseases in Nigeria, which prevents families from taking their loved ones for mental health check-ups. Even though Nigerian research efforts by scientists like Professor Ogunniyi have shed some light on this disease among Nigerians, we may only know more about the disease burden and impact in Nigeria in the future with more research.

It is worth mentioning that in addition to sugar, several factors enhance one's risk of developing this debilitating disease. Lack of exercise, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, depression, cognitive inactivity or low education are all risk factors identified for the disease. Therefore, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, balanced diet, staying connected socially and regularly interacting with others are all important in reducing the likelihood of developing the disease. However, for Nigeria, I would say maybe until the quality of life, and therefore our life expectancy increases, Alzheimer’s disease may not be the most immediate threat from taking too much sugar.

Mahmoud is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Sussex Neuroscience, Serpell Laboratory, studying the cellular and molecular mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease. Email him or connect with him on twitter via @mahmoudbukar

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