Obesity is a condition that brings a raft of health problems along with it. Now it appears those problems can include mental health as well. British researchers have found that cognitive decline can occur more rapidly in obese people as they age.
In the past year, studies have been published that suggest some obese people are “healthy” because their condition isn’t accompanied by other metabolic abnormalities such as high blood sugar and high cholesterol. However, a large body of evidence also suggests that as the pounds over your normal weight increase during middle age, so do your chances for developing dementia later in life.
Age-related cognitive decline—an erosion of thinking skills—is different than dementia or Alzheimers. And a new study from researchers at University College London suggests that due to a strong association between obesity and early cognitive decline, there is really no such thing as healthy obesity.
The British researchers tracked nearly 6,500 people for 10 years. At the beginning of the study the participants, who averaged 50 years old, were measured for body mass index and metabolic risk factors. Metabolic abnormalities were defined as having two or more of the following risk factors: high blood pressure or taking medication for it; low HDL (good) cholesterol; high blood sugar or taking diabetes medication; and high triglycerides (blood lipids) or taking medication to lower cholesterol.
Of the 9 percent of participants who were classified as obese, 60 percent, met criteria for metabolic abnormality. Thirty-eight percent were overweight and 31 percent had two or more metabolic abnormalities.
Dramatic acceleration in cognitive decline
Participants were tested for memory and other cognitive skills three times over a 10-year period. At the conclusion of their study, the researchers found that cognitive test scores for those who were both obese and metabolically abnormal declined 22.5 percent faster than those who were of normal weight without metabolic abnormalities. The metabolically normal obese individuals also experienced more rapid cognitive decline.
The researchers couldn’t say exactly why obesity and metabolic abnormalities lead to early cognitive decline, but other studies on obesity and dementia noted that fatty tissue is the body’s largest hormone producing organ, cranking out molecules that promote inflammation that may hasten the process of neurodegeneration.
The findings are a scary reminder that to preserve our mental performance, we should take care of ourselves physically throughout our lives.