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What is the effect of obesity on brain function?

Increasingly, clinical studies are indicating that excess weight is bad for the brain. An international group of researchers found that among more than 400 healthy adult men and women, those with an elevated body mass index (BMI) performed consistently worse on cognitive tests than those with a normal BMI. The results, reported in a 2007 issue of Comprehensive Psychiatry, echo previous findings linking obesity to impaired executive skills, verbal fluency and short- and long-term memory. Moreover, a five-year French study of 2,223 participants connected higher BMI s with lower cognitive test scores, also finding that the heavier test subjects were at the beginning of the study, the greater their cognitive decline by its conclusion.

And it’s not only adult brains that are affected. A 2008 study in the journal Obesity reported that among 2,519 children, ages 8 to 16, increased body weight was associated with decreased visuospatial organization and general mental ability.

Researchers have also found that obese or even overweight women are more susceptible to losing brain tissue as they age, which makes sense in light of the many studies showing an elevated incidence of Alzheimer’s disease among obese and overweight adults. In 2004, after following 1,500 subjects for 21 years, Swedish researchers concluded that obesity doubles the risk of developing dementia.

One in 45 Americans will ultimately suffer from dementia, the most common form of which is Alzheimer’s disease. There are more than 5 million cases of Alzheimer’s in the United States today, and that number is expected to more than triple by 2050—due not only to an increase in the aging population but also to expanding waistlines.

Fortunately, taking action to reduce the risk factors now—losing excess weight, improving your diet and exercising—gives you a far better chance of avoiding these minute neural injuries and maintaining your mental edge through the years.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.