New research reveals that being overweight in middle age can age the brain by a decade. Find out what that can mean for cognitive performance.
If you are middle-aged and carrying around extra weight, be warned: Being overweight or obese can age your brain by 10 years.
That’s according to new research from the University of Cambridge in England, which revealed that individuals who are overweight — with a body mass index above 25 — in middle age have brains with less white matter than their thinner counterparts.
In fact, that brain structure — with its shrinking white matter — is similar to what’s seen in people at least a decade older. According to a press release:
Our brains naturally shrink with age, but scientists are increasingly recognizing that obesity — already linked to conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease — may also affect the onset and progression of brain ageing.
The study, which is based on brain scans of 473 individuals between the ages of 20 and 87, is published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging. In the press release, Paul Fletcher, the senior author of the report, says:
“The fact that we only saw these differences from middle-age onwards raises the possibility that we may be particularly vulnerable at this age. It will also be important to find out whether these changes could be reversible with weight loss, which may well be the case.”
White matter tissue helps different regions of the brain communicate. It typically increases during youth and decreases with age, says an article in The Guardian. Loss of white matter has been linked to cognitive decline and dementia.
Mike Henne, a spokesman for the American Federation for Aging Research, told WebMD that loss of white matter is often associated with “foggy-mindedness.”
“If you lose white matter, the [brain’s] neurons are not as capable of communicating with each other,” said Henne.
However, in this study, researchers found no link between a smaller volume of white matter and reduced cognitive abilities in overweight individuals.
“We don’t yet know the implications of these changes in brain structure,” says study co-author Sadaf Farooqi, of the Wellcome Trust–Medical Research Council Institute of Metabolic Science at Cambridge.
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