Obesity not only impacts your physical health; it also impacts your brain. An assistant professor at Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, who’s received National Institute on Aging funding to study obesity’s effects on brain function in seniors, notes obesity can change the structure of the brain and cause atrophy.
1. A higher BMI is associated with poorer episodic memory – or difficulty recalling past events – in young adults ages 18 to 35. The findings in a research article published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology suggested that people who are overweight may experience memory slightly less vividly or in less detail. Other evidence indicates memory plays an important role in regulating what we eat; and clouded memory can make it harder to watch what one eats and lose weight.
2. Midlife obesity is associated with a higher risk of dementia. Being obese in one’s 40’s through 60’s is associated with a higher risk of dementia as you age. It’s linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, and a leading cause of death in the US. The true cause is not clear, but it is clear that added pounds negatively affect cardiovascular health, which plays a significant role in brain function.
3. Obesity in older individuals is associated with changes in brain activity that affect neuromuscular function – including making it harder to grab/grasp onto things. If your grip is not reliable, people can become a much higher risk of falls. It should also be noted, in studies where this information was proposed, obese individuals’ grasping ability was further impaired under stress.
4. Researchers found obese subjects also expended more mental resources when walking, even though they were able to walk as well as non-obese test subject. And stress further taxed the brain of obese individuals, compared to their normal-weight counterparts. In addition to the physical challenge, the added mental burden of obesity might also lead individuals to tire more quickly.
5. Being overweight may dull your ability to experience pleasure. One previous study published in the Journal of Neuroscience noted that an area of the brain called the striatum was less activated in women after they had gained weight. The striatum plays a key role in encoding the reward we get from eating certain foods, like those high in sugar that are associated with the release of the brain chemical dopamine, causing us to feel pleasure. In addition to high-fat, high sugar diets leading to being overweight has been associated with this same dulling effect, which experts say can lead a person to overeat to regain that fleeting sense of pleasure.
6. Obesity raises the risk of depression, and depression can raise the risk of obesity. We definitely know it contributes, and it may also contribute to bipolar disorder.
Health experts say losing weight typically has a positive impact on brain health. Lifestyle changes, including partaking in a heart-healthy diet and exercising regularly, have also proven a beneficial strategy to optimize mental function. As the obesity epidemic rages on, more studies are underway to shed light on those negative effects – and to shed light to help us better understand how to prevent or reverse them.