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Is Your Waistline Weakening Your Memory?

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Are you carrying extra weight around your waist? If so, you’ve no doubt heard how excess weight—especially around the waistline— contributes to numerous health problems, from cardiovascular disease to diabetes. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, say researchers. A new study shows those extra pounds could also be a key indicator of whether or not you’ll develop dementia within the next decade or two. A new study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology is the latest in a growing list of studies linking obesity to memory problems.1 In 2019, we told you about research at Loughborough University of England, which revealed how excess belly fat is linked to a smaller brain.2 Simply put, as the belly size grows, the memory center in the brain shrinks. Today, other researchers in the United Kingdom, from the University College London (UCL), have found even more compelling data on the effects of excess belly fat on your memory.

31 Percent Increased Risk of Dementia

For the latest study, the research team collected data from 6,582 people aged 50 years and over in a nationally representative sample of the English population from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.3 Researchers found that people whose BMI was 30 or higher—which is considered obese—at the start of the study had a 31 percent greater risk of dementia, at an average follow-up of 11 years, than those with normal BMI’s from 18.5 to 24.9. However, when BMI and waist circumference were viewed in combination, obese participants showed a 28 percent greater risk of dementia compared to those with normal BMI’s and waist circumference. For women, belly fat is an even greater concern. The study found women with abdominal obesity had a 39 percent risk of dementia compared to those with normal belly girth. This was independent of their age, education, marital status, smoking history, genetics (APOE ε4 gene—which is linked to Alzheimer’s development), diabetes and hypertension. Interestingly, researchers did not find this same association among the male participants.

Belly Fat Negatively Impacts Metabolic Pathways

In an interview with CNN, Dr. Richard Isaacson, the director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, said the study was important as it further links a larger waist size to increased dementia risk, especially for women. Dr. Isaacson noted that the UCL research “mirrors results” found in a study that his team published.4 "Based on emerging data from studies like this, we are now able to clarify sex differences in dementia risk,” he said. “Combining these findings with my clinical experience, I have seen greater impact of visceral fat on memory function in women, likely mediated by metabolic pathways." These studies further emphasize the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. "By identifying factors that may raise dementia risk that are influenced by lifestyle factors,” explains the UCL study co-author Andrew Steptoe, “we hope that a substantial portion, but, admittedly not all, of dementia cases can be prevented through public health interventions." I agree. I look forward to further research into lifestyle factors and the results of improving them as it relates to memory loss and dementia. While a healthy weight is no doubt important, it’s just one piece of the memory puzzle. Staying physically active and socially connected, not smoking, getting high quality sleep, and eating a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet are equally important. And keep an eye on blood pressure and blood sugar levels to keep your risk of dementia as low as possible.

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