Getting To A Healthy Weight Before This Age May Help Prevent Alzheimer's
At this point, you probably know that carrying excess weight on your body—particularly extra body fat around your middle—can increase the risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and dementia. And now, research suggests that being overweight may actually cause certain areas of your brain to become thinner.
In a new study of over 1,200 participants published in the journal Neurology, researchers discovered that people with bigger waistlines and a high body mass index (BMI) in their 60s had greater signs of brain aging six years later. Specifically, people with bigger waists and higher BMIs were more likely to have thinning in the cortex area of the brain—even after researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect the cortex such as high blood pressure, alcohol use, and smoking. According to study authors, this implies that being overweight is associated with reduced gray matter.
Why exactly is that a bad thing? According to integrative neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., gray matter contains the cell bodies of brain cells, and gray matter regions are important for cognition, emotional health, personality, sensation, and movement. Loss of gray matter may be associated with risk for stroke, headaches, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.
Compared to normal aging adults, "our results would indicate that being overweight or obese may accelerate aging in the brain by at least a decade," said study author and professor of neurology Tatjana Rundek, M.D., Ph.D., in a news release.
But before you freak out, this news should also be empowering. Researchers say this study adds weight to the theory that prioritizing your health in midlife (ideally, well in advance of your 60s) can significantly decrease the risk of cognitive problems later on.
"These results are exciting because they raise the possibility that by losing weight, people may be able to stave off aging of their brains and potentially the memory and thinking problems that can come along with brain aging," said Rundek.
Our advice: Don't just focus on the scale. That can make the whole process a lot more intimidating. Instead, focus on adding in healthy habits and foods that have been associated with good brain health all on their own—and that will likely have the positive side effect of helping you achieve a healthy weight. These include prioritizing daily movement (yoga has actually been associated with increased gray matter1), increasing your intake of omega-3s from fatty fish like salmon, getting in plenty of fiber and nutrients from an array of colorful produce, scaling back on sugar and refined carbs, and prioritizing sleep.
For more tips on keeping your brain in top shape, check out what renowned neurologist David Perlmutter, M.D., eats in a day.
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition. In addition to contributing to mindbodygreen, she has written for Women's Health, Prevention, and Health. She is also a certified holistic health coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She has a passion for natural, toxin-free living, particularly when it comes to managing issues like anxiety and chronic Lyme disease (read about how she personally overcame Lyme disease here).