Can Excess Weight Damage Your Brain?

Discover the surprising link between obesity and brain health—and what you can do about it.

Can Excess Weight Damage Your Brain?

When weatherman Al Roker hit 340 pounds, he knew he needed to change his ways. In 2002, he opted for bariatric surgery, a type of weight loss surgery, which launched him on a journey that—with ups and downs—helped him cruise into his 60s as a much healthier 190-pound man. How did he change his relationship to food? One bite at a time. For example, he says, "I try not to read and eat, and interestingly, since I stopped that habit, my comprehension is even better."

That wouldn’t surprise researchers who discovered that a healthy weight and smaller waist size means a more robust brain—and that a higher body mass index (BMI) and larger waist is associated with a thinning cerebral cortex, where thinking, seeing and talking go on.

Their six-year-long study, published in the journal Neurology, looked at almost 1,300 folks in their 60s. Participants who were obese (BMI of 30+) had an average waist circumference of 41 inches; those at a healthy weight (BMI of 18.5-24.9) averaged a 33-inch waist. An MRI scan of their brains revealed that every unit increase in BMI was associated with a measurable decrease in the thickness of the brain cortex, and for obese folks the thinning was pretty dramatic, especially for those younger than 65. Their brain aging was accelerated by at least a decade!

So, to stay smart, aim for a healthy weight:

  • Ditch highly processed foods and red meat.
  • Aim to get 150-300 minutes of aerobic exercise a week.
  • Strive to do at least two 30-minute strength-building sessions weekly.

You’ll feel much smarter—and healthier—afterwards.

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