This health condition is linked to worse Alzheimer’s symptoms

When it comes to excess body weight and obesity, you’ve probably heard it all before. We all know that being overweight or obese can put an individual at a much higher risk of developing multiple physical health conditions.

From heart attacks and other cardiovascular issues to diabetes and osteoarthritis, there’s no shortage of physical reasons to pursue a healthy body weight.

Now, though, a new study out of England from the University of Sheffield finds another big motivator to avoid any foods with a high caloric count. Researchers say being overweight or obese places an “additional burden” on the brain, which eventually may result in worse Alzheimer’s symptoms.

Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, is of course notorious for its awful symptoms. Those diagnosed with the neurological disorder typically experience extreme memory loss, confusion, and loss of cognitive abilities.

There’s no denying the prospect of suffering a stroke or heart attack is scary, but there’s something especially bone-chilling about the notion of losing one’s very identity. That’s what many Alzheimer’s patients endure. 

On a more detailed level, the team at Sheffield says that obesity appears to place additional strain on neural tissues, resulting in increased vulnerability.

Hopefully, these findings will be enough to encourage even the most dedicated couch potatoes to reevaluate their lifestyle choices. But, just in case anyone out there needs more convincing, researchers also report that an inverse relationship between weight and dementia appears to hold true. Essentially, keeping a healthy body weight for the majority of one’s adult life will go a long way toward preserving brain structure and lowering one’s odds of developing severe Alzheimer’s symptoms in old age.

“More than 50 million people are thought to be living with Alzheimer’s disease and despite decades of ground breaking studies and a huge global research effort we still don’t have a cure for this cruel disease,” says lead study author Annalena Venneri from the University of Sheffield’s Neuroscience Institute and NIHR Sheffield Biomedical Research Centre. 

“Prevention plays such an important role in the fight against the disease. It is important to stress this study does not show that obesity causes Alzheimer’s, but what it does show is that being overweight is an additional burden on brain health and it may exacerbate the disease.”

It isn’t in most people’s nature to worry about what will happen to them 20, 30, or 40 years down the line. But, this study makes a compelling case that the choices we make today will determine our tomorrow. Lifestyle choices made at age 35 may influence life at 65 far more than most assume.

“The diseases that cause dementia such as Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia lurk in the background for many years, so waiting until your 60s to lose weight is too late. We need to start thinking about brain health and preventing these diseases much earlier. Educating children and adolescents about the burden being overweight has on multimorbidities including neurodegenerative diseases is vital,” Venneri adds.

In collaboration with scientists from the University of Eastern Finland, study authors analyzed a series of brain scans collected from 47 individuals officially diagnosed with a mild form of Alzheimer’s, 68 people with mild cognitive impairment, and 57 individuals with generally normal cognitive health. A total of three distinct, computational techniques were used to analyze each person’s brain structure, brain blood flow, and brain fibers.

Researchers were primarily interested in assessing gray matter volume, which is known to degenerate as dementia progresses, as well as each person’s white matter integrity, cerebral blood flow, and of course, obesity status.

Among the diagnosed Alzheimer’s patients, a positive association was indeed noted between obesity and gray matter volume within the right temporoparietal junction.

Interestingly, researchers also report that maintaining a healthy body weight during a battle with Alzheimer’s also appears to be beneficial in terms of protecting brain structures.

“Weight-loss is commonly one of the first symptoms in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease as people forget to eat or begin to snack on easy-to-grab foods like biscuits or crisps, in place of more nutritional meals,” comments study co-author Dr. Matteo De Marco from the University of Sheffield’s Neuroscience Institute. 

“We found that maintaining a healthy weight could help preserve brain structure in people who are already experiencing mild Alzheimer’s disease dementia. Unlike other diseases such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes, people don’t often think about the importance of nutrition in relation to neurological conditions, but these findings show it can help to preserve brain structure,” she concludes.

Whenever browsing take-out or restaurant menus we all tend to think about what effect such food items will have on our stomachs and guts. Perhaps we should all start considering how nutrition influences the mind just as often.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Reports.