This Surprising Body Type Puts You At Risk For Alzheimer's

Photo: @huannchin

You can't tell how healthy someone is just by looking at them, but that doesn't mean people don't make assumptions, especially when they're factoring in weight. But what about people who are "skinny-fat"? According to a new study, this body type, which is characterized by a combination of high fat mass and low muscle mass, may actually be worse for your health than obesity alone.

So, how do you know if you are "skinny-fat"? For starters, skinny-fat is actually a colloquial term for the medical term sarcopenic obesity. Sarcopenic obesity is the combination of sarcopenia, age-related muscle degeneration, and obesity, excess fat mass. Someone who has sarcopenic obesity may appear to be thin and even register as "normal" on the BMI scale (between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2), but their body composition is actually similar to someone who would be classified as obese.

As we age our muscles naturally lose strength and functionality, known as sarcopenia, and our metabolism slows. If we do not adjust our caloric intake and physical activity levels, we risk gaining fat mass, which may go undetected on the scale due to the loss of muscle mass. Individuals with low skeletal muscle mass and high body fat percentage are considered sarcopenic obese, and it can have serious implications for their brain health.

On their own, obesity and sarcopenia are each a risk factor for impaired cognitive health. The muscle degeneration from sarcopenia extends to brain atrophy as well, affecting cognitive function. Obesity has been linked to structural changes in the brain, inflammation, and increased risk of Alzheimer’s. The aforementioned new research finds that, together, the imbalance of lean mass and fat mass may be even more detrimental.

The study, published in Clinical Interventions in Aging, found that being "skinny-fat" was a significant indicator of cognitive decline in elderly adults. Using a combination of motor-skills tests like grip strength and sit-to-stand time as well as more advanced body composition scans, researchers classified 353 adults with an average age of 69 as sarcopenic, obese, sarcopenic obese, or control. Individuals who showed signs of sarcopenic obesity scored worse on a cognitive performance test than those who were only sarcopenic or obese, suggesting a compounding effect of the two. In particular sarcopenic obesity, or being "skinny-fat," negatively affected executive function and orientation, early signs of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

With 14 million people expected to be living with Alzheimer’s by 2020, this study could have important implications for how physicians assess a patient’s risk of cognitive decline and take preventive action.

Want to optimize your brain health? Here's everything you should eat to prevent cognitive decline.

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