A group of researchers found that in middle-age, overweight and obese people lose white matter at a faster pace than their peers with a healthy weight. Study authors suspect that the extra pounds may shrink the brain and probably diminish its functions.
The study involved two groups of middle-aged individuals. One group had members that were either obese or overweight, while the other group had members with a normal body mass index (BMI). Brain scans revealed that the overweight group had a lower white matter volume than the lean group.
Even though researchers haven’t found an association between reduced brain volume and weaker thinking skills, countless of previous studies have revealed that white matter loss is often associated with cognitive decline.
Researchers explained that reduced amounts of white matter tissue make communication between neurons extremely difficult.
Dr, Lisa Ronan who conducted the study noted that the implications of the study remain unclear as her team failed to find a “significant difference” in cognitive functions between the two groups. But the team did find a significant difference in the brain structure of study participants.
Dr. Ronan said that her team decided to see whether obesity and overweight had any effect on the normal brain aging processes. Several studies had documented a link between obesity and faster brain aging but evidence was scarce.
The recent study involved 473 participants, of whom 227 were overweight or obese and 246 had a normal BMI. A healthy BMI is in the 18.5-25 range, while a BMI above 25 indicates the person is either overweight or obese. The mean age of the study cohort was 54.
Brains scans revealed that the brain structure in the overweight and obese group looked as if brain aging was sped up by as much as 10 years. Researchers suggest that not only the extra fat may trigger the phenomenon.
Past studies had shown that there is an association between high cholesterol and white matter loss. Study investigators noticed that the overweight group had also high cholesterol levels, which may indicate that the reduction in brain volume may be caused by a mix of factors not just obesity.
Dr. Ronan noted that the findings could also hint that obesity and overweight problems are risk factors in other aging-related brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s or dementia. But that requires further analysis.
The study was reported July 27 in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.
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