Excessive body fat around the middle linked to smaller brain

Grant Boone
January 12, 2019

The findings showed that people with a high BMI alone had slightly lower brain volumes, but those with high BMI and high waist-to-hip ratios were shown to have even less.

The study shows that "1,291 people who had a high BMI and a high waist-to-hip ratio had the lowest average grey matter brain volume of 786 cubic centimetres, compared to 3,025 people of healthy weight who had an average grey matter brain volume of 798 cubic centimetres and 514 people with a high BMI but without high waist-to-hip ratio who had an average grey matter brain volume of 793 cubic centimeters".

About 500 participants with a high BMI but not a high waist-to-hip ratio also had an average amount of grey matter. Researchers measured BMI, waist-to-hip ratio and overall body fat and surveyed participants about their health.

"It's unclear if abnormalities in brain structure lead to obesity or if obesity leads to these changes in the brain", study author Mark Hamer said in a statement.

Carried out by researchers at Loughborough University, the new study looked at 9,652 adults with an average age of 55, and used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure brain volumes for white and grey brain matter. BMI is a formula involving a person's weight and height; a BMI score between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered healthy, while above 30 is considered obese. In the end they found that high BMI linked to smaller brain volume.

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If someone is both obese and apple-shaped, carrying more weight around their middle than on their hips, a study has found they have a smaller brain.

Cara Bohon from Stanford University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research, said that the connection between reduced brain volume and belly fat suggests that inflammation and vascular factors may be at play.

Lower brain volume, or brain shrinkage, has been linked with an increased risk of memory decline and dementia. However, excess weight was associated with shrinkage in specific regions of the brain: the pallidum, nucleus accumbens, putamen (linked only to a higher BMI) and caudate (linked only to a higher waist-to-hip ratio).

It could be that people with lower volumes of gray matter in certain brain areas are at a higher risk of obesity. "Our research looked at a large group of people and found obesity, specifically around the middle, may be linked with brain shrinkage", says Prof Hamer. White matter contains nerve fibre bundles that connect various regions of the brain.

The study, nonetheless, found only an association between lower brain volume and belly fat.

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