More than just your physical health might be affected by the size of your waistline, says a new study that investigated the relationship between visceral fat and brain cognition, and found that people with excess body fat could have trouble with thinking properly.
Obesity in our modern world has become an increasingly concerning problem with the World Health Organization estimating that global obesity rates have tripled since 1975, a troubling statistic by any metric that also may have serious implications for our brains.
The health problems caused by being overweight or obese are pretty well understood by science today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that heavier people can expect higher risks of all-cause mortality as well as some nasty diseases.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, stroke, and osteoarthritis are just a few of the dangerous ailments that you could develop if you’re considered to be overweight or obese. But now there’s a new reason to be alarmed—obesity could affect your brain.
In a new study published in The Lancet, researchers discovered that individuals with a lot of excess body fat also seemed to suffer from reduced cognitive functioning. But it is a little more complicated than that and one of the study’s co-authors explained why.
“We know from observational studies that obesity may be bad for our cognitive function, so in theory managing obesity may maintain or improve cognitive function,” Nanyang Technological University’s Theresia Handayani Mina explained to PsyPost’s Eric Dolan
“However,” Mina added, “the findings from other trials of obesity risk management have been inconsistent, so the causal relationship between obesity, and other metabolic risk factors, and cognitive function was still unclear.”
Mina wanted to resolve the inconsistencies in the science of obesity and brain health, so she took it upon herself to explore the question and developed a study that focused on multi-ethnic Asian populations because of the “higher obesity burden in Asia-Pacific.”
The study used epidemiological analysis from a cohort of 10,004 mainly ethnic Chinese, Malay, and South Asian participants according to PsyPost. The researchers collected biological samples from each individual and had them fill out a lifestyle questionnaire.
Cognitive functioning was then evaluated using a computer test that covered the human brain’s four major cognitive domains while each participant’s body fat composition was determined using dual x-ray absorptiometry scans, basically a sophisticated fat camera.
The scans revealed each participant’s visceral fat levels and the cognition test allowed the researchers to determine if those with excess fat also had cognitive issues. But that was just one part of the study. Mendelian Randomization analysis was also conducted.
Mendelian Randomization analysis is a kind of genetic approach to studying people that can lessen environmental effects according to Mina. If it is applied properly, it can be similar to a randomized control trial and used to help “provide [a] causal link.”
Results from the study found that 23% of participants were obese and that having too much visceral fat did have an effect on cognition. Metabolic health markers like HDL cholesterol were also related to poorer cognitive functioning.
“I think that we were all surprised by the impact of visceral fat,” Mina told PsyPost. “In terms of weight, visceral fat is only a small proportion of our body composition. Visceral fat is also anatomically far from the brain… yet it has such [a] profound, systemic effect.
“We [learned] through other studies that visceral fat can have [a] systemic effect through various biological mechanisms,” Mina continued, explaining that: “This is why visceral fat is very fascinating: it is small but mighty.”
A patient’s cognitive functioning was also impacted by other factors like education and age according to PsyPost, which noted that the study found people with higher levels of education also had higher cognition while older people had “poorer cognitive function.”
Results from the Mendelian Randomization analysis also found a relationship between visceral fat and lower cognitive functioning while the metabolic factors that affected the other findings did not show any direct relationships with cognition PsyPost reported.
“A healthy brain needs a healthy body,” Mina said. “This includes not having excess visceral fat. So consider the health of your brain the next time you reach for that extra piece of cheesecake! And don’t forget to exercise so you can eliminate your visceral fat.