A growing body of research has been linking obesity and ‘metabolic syndrome‘ in middle- and old-age with cognitive impairment. Now, for the first time, a study shows that obese, metabolically messed-up kids experience similar brain damage and learning and memory trouble. While scientists previously thought these types of things resulted from long-term bad habits and poor metabolism, the results of this study indicate that a much shorter duration of poor metabolism can still cause brain problems.
Conducted by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine, the study looked at how metabolic syndrome (MetS) — i.e., having three or more of five health issues, including high blood pressure, insulin resistance/pre-diabetes, low HDL (good) cholesterol, high triglyceride levels and abdominal obesity — affects the brains of teenagers. To do this, the researchers compared the MRI, endocrine and neuropsychological test results of 62 teens with MetS and 49 teens without it (adjusting for age, socioeconomic, gender and ethnic differences). What they uncovered wasn’t pretty.
“The kids with MetS took longer to do tasks, could not read as well and had poorer math scores,” said lead investigator Antonio Convit, a professor of psychiatry and medicine at NYU.
“These findings indicate that kids with MetS do not perform well on things that are very relevant to school performance … We’re taking away gym class in order to give children more class time in an effort to improve school performance, but that effort may be having the exact opposite effect.”
School performance and short-term learning deficits are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, mind you – teenagers with MetS also showed the type of brain damage connected in the long-term with Alzheimer’s and dementia. This included less volume in the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for learning and recalling new information), more brain cerebrospinal fluid and less integrity between the “white matter” in the brain. The more MetS health problems participants had, the more profound the effect.
“Parents need to understand that obesity has medical consequences, even in children, and some of those consequences may be impacting more than just the long term health of the cardiovascular system,” said Convit. ”The take home message is that just being overweight and obese is already impacting your brain.”
Could earlier brain shrinkage and disintegration lead to earlier development of dementia? I’m not sure (and the researchers don’t say), but it certainly seems like a possibility. If so, file this under the department of we are all really, really screwed unless something changes. Right now, one in eight Americans 65+ and one in two 80+ have Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia. By 2050, when the boomer generation hits really old age, the number of Alzheimer’s patients is predicted to triple — and this is a cohort that had nowhere near the amount of childhood obesity, type-2 diabetes and MetS we see today.