A recent study suggests that obesity in the middle-age may reduce the amount of white matter tissue in the brain and prompt a decline in thinking skills not related to normal aging processes.
Researchers found that the extra body fat can make your brain age prematurely by as much as a decade. The study found that both obese and overweight people have lower amounts of white matter when compared to their slimmer peers of the same age.
White matter is essential for a normal functioning of the brain as it helps different regions of the central nervous system to communicate with one another. A loss in white matter has been often associated with mental decline in past studies.
Researchers at University of Cambridge, in the U.K, acknowledged that they weren’t able to establish a difference in brain functions between the overweight and the healthy weight. Brain scans only revealed a difference between white matter volume in the two groups.
Previous research had also found a statistically significant association between obesity and cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease risk. Even though the current study hasn’t found a similar link, researchers believe that the association may be caused by the loss in the white matter.
Mike Henne of the American Federation for Aging Research explained that white matter loss is normally caused by dementia. Lower white matter usually causes ‘foggy-mindedness,’ the researcher added.
White matter is lost as we age as well. It first starts to reduce its volume in the late 30’s. Henne, who is also a cell biology expert at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, noted that if the brain starts shedding white matter, neural cells can no longer properly communicate with each other.
The U.K. study involved 473 participants in their 40’s. About 250 participants had a healthy BMI, 150 were overweight, and 77 were diagnosed with obesity. Volunteers were asked to answer complete an IQ test to have their thinking skills assessed.
Study investigators couldn’t say why exactly the extra pounds seem to have such an impact on white matter. Other studies have found that middle-aged people tend to lose white matter because their neurons become more prone to inflammation as the brain ages.
So, researchers speculate that the inflammatory agents released by the fat cells may have a negative impact on the white matter.
“That is a leading theory in the field,”
Nonetheless, the latest study has a major limitation: it has only evaluated people at only one point in their lives. As a follow-up, the team plans to follow study participants over longer periods of time before drawing a final conclusion.
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