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Maintaining a healthy weight does more than prevent diabetes and heart disease, keep your joints in good condition, and help your pants fit comfortably. A new study has found that those who are obese in middle age will face cognitive decline faster than those at a healthy weight with no metabolic risk factors. The study was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health in the United States, and was led by Dr. Archana Singh-Manoux, the research director of Inserm, France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research.
The study, published in Neurology in August, followed 6,401 participants from Whitehall II, a larger group of British civil servants who have been followed since 1985. At the beginning of the study, the mean age of participants was 50 years old. Those of normal weight accounted for 53 percent of participants, 38 percent were overweight, and 9 percent were obese. Thirty-one percent of all participants exhibited metabolic risk factors. Participants had their verbal fluency, reasoning, and short-term memory assessed through a series of cognitive tests administered at three different points over the ten-year study.
Singh-Manoux points out that in the past ten years, people started to believe that a person could be “fit and fat,” that is, being obese without any metabolic problems or risk factors. This latest study found that even if participants were metabolically healthy, those who were obese “still went on to experience significant cognitive decline.” To be deemed metabolically healthy, participants would not have exhibited risk factors for diabetes and heart disease like high triglycerides and low HDL (or good) cholesterol. With or without risk factors, all of the obese participants faced a faster cognitive decline than those of normal weight.
Of the obese participants, 60 percent had two or more risk factors and were thus considered metabolically abnormal. This group experience cognitive decline 22.5 percent faster than the participants of a normal weight with normal metabolic function. Even at the beginning of the study, the metabolically abnormal obese participants had test scores associated with older people. In fact, the obese group’s cognitive age was about seven year older than that of the normal weight participants who were the same chronological age.
Even those in the normal weight category weren’t completely in the clear. Those with a normal weight and metabolic risk factors still had faster cognitive decline than those who were metabolically healthy and of a normal weight.
The researchers aren’t sure how cognitive decline and obesity are linked yet, but there are theories. High blood pressure and blood sugar could lead to changes in the brain, fat cells could lead to hormonal changes that could impact the brain, or it could be a lack of aerobic exercise. Other studies have found that aerobic exercise tends to stave off dementia and cognitive decline.
Over time, all participants experienced cognitive decline. Unfortunately, there’s no magical weight that will keep you sharp, but keeping your weight in a healthy range and taking steps to prevent diabetes and heart disease will likely help you stay sharp. With all of these new reasons to get on a healthy diet and start exercising, now is the time to get on that health kick.