How Diabetes Impacts Mental Health

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

In addition to marking the beginning of the holiday season, November is American Diabetes Month – and given the influx of unhealthy foods and practices that abound during this time of the year, I can’t help but wonder if the timing of this was strategically planned.

When we think of diabetes, its physical manifestations and symptoms often come to mind first. After all, the vision problems, foot complications, hypertension, and high risk of wound infection due to slower healing weigh heavy on the minds of those with diabetes and their caregivers. However, diabetes affects people in a more insidious way that is no less important – it impacts mental health.


Think about it. Diabetes is characterized by blood glucose (sugar) levels that are too high. The brain uses glucose for all of its functions, which include thinking, judgment, memory, emotions, and behavior. If we have too much glucose coursing through our body, our brain will be affected along with our eyes, skin, feet, and every other anatomical system.

Here are a few ways that diabetes impacts mental health:

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  • Depression. People with diabetes are at a higher risk for developing depression. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why, but they theorize that it may be a combination of the way erratic blood sugar and insulin levels affect the brain as well as the psychological stressors associated with having a serious chronic disease. In addition, poorly controlled diabetes can create symptoms that mimic depression.
  • Dementia. More and more research is finding that individuals who have diabetes are at higher risk of developing dementia in later life. One theory is that high glucose levels create stress on the brain that accumulates over many years. Another theory posits that because diabetes constricts blood vessels (which explains the related risk for hypertension), the disease reduces blood flow to the brain, which can lead to oxygen deprivation and brain damage over time.
  • Delirium. When diabetes is poorly controlled, it can lead to delirium. This acute state of severe confusion and behavior change is difficult to treat and is associated with higher risk for long-term cognitive impairment and even death. What’s scarier is that delirium often isn’t diagnosed properly, and time is of the essence when treating such a critical condition.

If you have diabetes, or know someone who does, I encourage you to learn more about how to manage diabetes during American Diabetes Month. The American Diabetes Association is a great place to start. Caring for your body can dramatically help your brain, which in turn can lead to better mental health, even in the face of a chronic condition such as diabetes.


Balhara, Y. P. S. (2011). Diabetes and psychiatric disorders. Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, 15(4), 274-283.

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