Obesity has been linked to smaller brain volume besides physical health problems. In a recent study, published online on July 27 in the Neurobiology of Aging journal, researchers have concluded that being overweight can be the catalyst for causing more rapid aging in middle-aged brains.
The researchers discovered a correlation between the shrinking of the white matter in brains with obesity. The white matter in human brains helps different regions of the brain to communicate with each other. While white matter in brains is known to shrink with age, the study did comparisons of the shrinkage of white matter in the brains of lean people, according to U.S. News & World Report, versus those who are obese and overweight, and found “that the amount of white matter in the brain of a 50-year-old overweight/obese person was comparable to that of a 60-year-old lean person.”
As the lead author of the new study, Lisa Ronan, a research associate in the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge in England, put it, normal aging causes certain changes to happen to the bodies and brains of humans. Being overweight and severely overweight can cause very similar and sometimes identical changes. She said their hypothesis was that obesity may worsen the effects of aging that are present in the brain.
Ronan did not go so far as to say that being overweight or obese for sure raised the risk of getting dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, diseases often associated with the aging of human brains. However, she did say it was “possible” that there was an elevated risk with people who are obese or overweight of developing those sorts of neurodegenerative disorders. A definite cause and effect relationship has not yet been established, but the relationship has definitely been suggested by the findings of the researchers.
Despite the increased shrinking in the volume of the white matter in human brains that the researchers noted, Ronan stated there were not any differences between the overweight and obese people and the lean people in relation to cognitive ability.
The study’s participants were 473 men and women, all from Cambridge, England, MedScape reported. They all were in the age range of 20 to 87 and their mental health was sound.
For comparison purposes, Ronan and her fellow researchers tried to make sure approximately half of the participants were considered to be “lean,” with Body Mass Indexes (BMIs) between 18.5 and 25. The other half were considered to be overweight with BMIs over 30. BMIs are calculated by comparing the body fat a person has based on height in relation to weight.
Even initial analysis showed that the amount of white matter in the brains of the obese people in the study, in general, was significantly less than the amount of white matter in the brains of the lean people. Additionally, when the researchers analyzed the brains of middle-aged study participants in both groups, they found that ones in the obese and overweight group had a reduced amount of white matter brain volume, an amount that was equal to the amount of white matter in the brains of lean participants who were a decade older.
The researchers stressed that the large age difference in white matter in the brains of the participants was just noted in ones who were middle-aged and not to as large of a degree with the younger ones in their 20s and 30s, according to MedScape. Ronan added that the study did not determine if losing weight would lessen the severity of the effects they reported.
One drawback to the study is that it did not follow participants over a period of time. Also the researchers did not take into account the overall distribution of fat in the participants who had higher BMIs.
The researchers concluded, after analyzing the results of their study, that the shrinkage of white matter in brains appears to be linked with how overweight or obese a person is, particularly in the case of middle-aged participants. The amounts of white matter in the brains of the participants, according to Digital Journal, was determined using “magnetic resonance imaging.” Obesity has also been linked to a wide range of physical problems, like a higher risk for developing diabetes, cardiovascular problems, stroke, and some types of cancer. For more CDA News, follow our tweets on Twitter and like us on Facebook.
By John Samuels
Photo Courtesy Dr. Lisa Ronan