Most people know that being obese can cause diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other illnesses — but now it seems that the looming obesity crisis in the United Kingdom could also affect Britons’ brains.
Researchers have found that an overweight person’s brain looks ten years older than the brain of a thinner person who is the same age.
Cambridge Centre for Aging and Neuroscience researchers examined 473 people from ages 20 to 87 and divided them into an overweight group and a lean group. The heavier group had much less white matter in their brains than the thinner group. An obese 50-year-old’s brain scan resembled more closely the brain of a 60-year-old person.
On the bright side, the age difference only showed up for those of middle-age and up, so younger participants have time to make some changes.
Nicole Lyn Pesce, writing for the New York Daily News, quoted Paul Fletcher, the senior author of the study and professor at Cambridge, who intimated that early intervention is key:
“The fact that we only saw these differences from middle-age onwards raises the possibility that we may be particularly vulnerable at this age. We’re living in an aging population, with increasing levels of obesity, so it’s essential that we establish how these two factors might interact, since the consequences for health are potentially serious.”
Fletcher notes that more study will be needed to discover why the white matter is eliminated so quickly with weight gain, or if these changes could be reversed by losing weight.
The good news is that both the overweight and the lean groups performed at the same level on knowledge and understanding tests. Even if a person is carrying extra pounds, they do not seem to be losing cognitive function or becoming less intelligent.
“This must be a starting point for us to explore in more depth the effects of weight, diet and exercise on the brain and memory,” stated the report.
The Telegraph’s Laura Donnelly points out that the amount of white matter, which is the tissue that unites areas of the brain and enables information to be delivered from region to region, shriveled in the subjects with a Body Mass Index of over 25.
The results of the study were issued in the journal Neurobiology of Aging. Researchers will continue to scan the volunteers as they age to check for any changes which exemplify mental decline.
Lisa Ronan, the lead author of the Cambridge report, said the implications of the brain-obesity connection could extend:
“This study raises the possibility that if you are overweight or obese you may be more susceptible to diseases [linked] to age-related decline such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.”
Ronan added that it is possible that the genes responsible for obesity could also be linked to having smaller brains. It could also be that a change in the brain could lead to eating disorders.
Either way, Dr. James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, explains that the best ways to limit the risk of dementia are to follow a healthy eating style, to include exercise in your daily regimen, and to avoid smoking, reports Nicola Davis for The Guardian.