How many of us today struggle with weight issues? We appear obsessed with seeking a way, any way, to help us to lose those excess kilos. Just look in any book-store and there are dozens of books instructing us how to lose weight. We have nightly current affairs programs discussing the latest “secrets” or diet craze. We even have television programs documenting weight loss as a competition, with “The Biggest Loser”
Why is obesity a concern for our brain?
Being overweight or obese carries a number of significant health issues. Not least of which include Type two diabetes and heart disease. Our calorie dense diets and sedentary lifestyle compound the problem.
One of the other issues less well known about from being overweight is the effect it has on our brain. Our memory and thinking skills are impaired when we are overweight.
Obesity is associated with a shrinking brain. The total brain volume is reduced and the amount of grey matter (our neurons in our cortex) is less dense.
Worse still, being overweight in middle age (BMI 25-40) is associated with a 70% increase risk of dementia. If you are obese, make that x 4 the risk. There is also a gender bias, with women being particularly at risk.
Apart from the increased risk of diabetes and vascular disease, both of which are risk factors for dementia, being obese means the body and brain are subjected to higher levels of inflammation. The fatty tissue itself secretes inflammatory cytokines and other chemicals.
So, is weight loss the answer?
In a nutshell, yes.
This has recently been confirmed by a study on people who have undergone bariatric surgical procedures to achieve weight loss. Bariatric medicine deals with the cause, prevention and treatment of obesity. Increasing numbers of people have been resorting to surgery in a desperate attempt to lose weight when all other avenues appear to have failed.
The surgery often produces significant weight loss over a relatively short period of time. This made this type of procedure ideal as a means to study what impact if any, the surgery produced on memory and cognitive function of the obese.
A total of 150 people participated in the trial. 109 underwent a bariatric procedure. Prior to the surgery many of the group exhibited impaired performance on cognitive testing.
In just twelve weeks postoperatively, these results had improved from slight impairment to returning to a normal range.
The study will continue with repeated testing at one year and two years postoperatively.
This is obviously really good news to show that such cognitive impairment can be reversed with successful bariatric procedures. Further studies will look to see whether the same sort of result can be achieved using conventional weight loss techniques of diet and exercise. It could also be, that as successful weight loss is achieved, we are more likely to remain motivated to keep eating more healthily and to keep exercising, both of which are really important factors to help us retain our cognition.
The prospect of being able to improve your memory and thinking skills by keeping your weight in the healthy weight range is a very powerful motivator. Plus it reduces that risk of dementia in later years.
Many of us worry about our health and our brain as we age, the impact of our genes and what we can do to help ourselves. But it looks as if ensuring we keep to a healthy weight range across our lifespan is a really great way to start.
John Gunstad et al. Improved memory function 12 weeks after bariatric surgery. Journal of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, 2010 DOI: 10.1016/j.soard.2010.09.015