High Body Fat Linked to Possible 'Brain Shrinkage'

For the study, researchers determined obesity by measuring body mass index (BMI) and waist-to-hip ratio in study participants and found those with higher ratios of both measures had the lowest brain volume. BMI is a weight-to-height ratio. It is determined by dividing a person’s weight by the square of their height. People with a BMI above 30.0 are considered obese. Waist-to-hip ratio is determined by dividing waist circumference by hip circumference. People with bigger bellies compared to their hips have higher ratios. Men above 0.90 and women above 0.85 are considered to be centrally obese.

“Existing research has linked brain shrinkage to memory decline and a higher risk of dementia, but research on whether extra body fat is protective or detrimental to brain size has been inconclusive,” said study author Mark Hamer, PhD, of Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England. “Our research looked at a large group of people and found obesity, specifically around the middle, may be linked with brain shrinkage.”

High Body Fat Linked to Possible 'Brain Shrinkage'

The study looked at 9,652 people with an average age of 55. Of that group, 19 percent were determined to be obese. Researchers measured BMI, waist-to-hip ratio and overall body fat and surveyed participants about their health. Researchers then used magnetic resonance imaging to determine brain volumes for white and gray brain matter and volumes in the various regions of the brain. “While our study found obesity, especially around the middle, was associated with lower gray matter brain volumes, it’s unclear if abnormalities in brain structure lead to obesity or if obesity leads to these changes in the brain,” said Hamer. “We also found links between obesity and shrinkage in specific regions of the brain. This will need further research but it may be possible that someday regularly measuring BMI and waist-to-hip ratio may help determine brain health.” A limitation of the study was that only 5 percent of those invited to participate in the study took part, and those who participated tended to be healthier than those who did not, so the results may not reflect the population as a whole.

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The American Academy of Neurology is the world’s largest association of neurologists and neuroscience professionals, with 36,000 members. The AAN is dedicated to promoting the highest quality patient-centered neurologic care. A neurologist is a doctor with specialized training in diagnosing, treating and managing disorders of the brain and nervous system such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, migraine, multiple sclerosis, concussion, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.

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