A 2018 study of more than 5,000 older adults led to the conclusion that excess belly fat is associated with cognitive decline. These findings add to the body of evidence that demonstrates how people who are overweight don’t perform as well on memory and visuospatial tests, with this particular study focusing specifically on excess belly fat and older adults. (Visuospatial tests measure a person’s ability to perceive similarities and differences among objects.)
More specifically, it was a higher waist-to-hip ratio that correlated with a reduction in cognitive function. This information dovetails with previous studies that have shown how, with more belly fat, there’s also an “increased secretion of inflammatory markers”—and this could be the underlying cause of the increased risk of cognitive decline.
Then there is the body mass index (BMI), which is a “crude measure of body fat,” one that can’t distinguish between fat and muscle (the latter of which is fat-free). Here, the study showed that a higher BMI actually protected cognitive function, overall, and “it is proposed that the fat-free mass component is likely to be the protective factor.”
The senior author of the study said the following about the implications from this study: “While we have known for some time that obesity is associated with negative health consequences, our study adds to emerging evidence suggesting that obesity—and where we deposit our excess weight—could influence our brain health. This has significant public health implications.”
A Harvard publication provides commentary about these study results, sharing how it isn’t surprising there isn’t a link between higher BMI scores and memory challenges. The commentary also clarifies how it is visceral fat, the “dangerous fat that accumulates around internal organs,” that appears to be the trigger. The Harvard publication also shares that excess belly fat has already been shown to increase C-reactive protein levels, a boost that has been linked to increased dementia risk.
Middle-Aged People Gaining Weight
In a 2014 study, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) noted that obesity in the middle-age demographic is “increasing markedly” and that, in conjunction, metabolic disorders such as cardiovascular disease and Type II diabetes are also on the rise. Overall, the NIH shares, metabolic disorders and obesity are “associated with poorer cognitive performance, cognitive decline, and dementia.”
The NIH also says that it is “abundantly evident that there is a deleterious effect of obesity/high fat feeding on cognitive performance. In human clinical studies, obesity has been shown to increase the risk of the development of mild cognitive impairment, in the form of short-term memory and executive function deficits, as well as dementia and Alzheimer's disease.”
What to Do
So, for better health—both physical and cognitive—it makes sense to talk to your doctor, if relevant for you, to come up with strategies for losing weight. To specifically reduce excess belly fat, Rush University Medical Center notes there is no one thing that will help to reduce fat around your midsection, but one excellent step in the right direction is to eliminate sugary drinks, including juices, and then reduce sugar in your diet overall.
This medical center gives a thumbs up to the Mediterranean diet, saying to frontload your diet with seasoned vegetables, making veggies half of your plate. Physical movement is important, and the article being cited suggests actively engaging in a hobby is much healthier than relaxing in front of a television set. Also, get enough sleep.
“The bottom line,” the article concludes, “is that when it comes to belly fat, the answer is not in drugs or supplements. Enjoying a healthy lifestyle should be the focus. And while that's not as simple as swallowing a pill, the benefits will last a lifetime.”