There are so many benefits to losing weight if you have obesity in your
middle age--generally thought of as the years between age 40 and 60. Your
heart will beat stronger and longer, your lungs will breathe easier, and
your joints will flex better. Now you can add to the list the possibility
of preserving the health of your brain: People in midlife with an obese
body mass index (BMI) have a lower likelihood of delaying the onset of
Alzheimer’s disease, according to a recent study conducted by the
National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health.
Obesity and Alzheimer’s disease are both on the rise in America as
the age of its population increases, and medical researchers have been
looking at a possible link between the two for quite some time, says
Alex Zand, MD, an internal medicine physician at
St. Joseph Hospital Affiliated Physicians in Orange. “What makes the NIA study notable,” says Dr. Zand,
who was not involved in the study, “is the finding that, statistically,
obesity not only influences whether you develop Alzheimer’s, but
it may play a role in determining how soon you develop it. The study implies
that one of the ways to gain long-term protection from the onset of dementia
is by reaching a healthy BMI by the time you enter your middle years,
and keeping it that way.”
The NIA determined that the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is significantly
earlier for patients who carry excess weight into their middle years.
Examining the records of around 1,400 participants in a long-running project
that tracks what happens to healthy people as they age, researchers found
142 patients who were cognitively healthy at age 50 and later developed
Alzheimer’s. Comparing the BMI—a ratio of height to weight—of
those patients revealed that every additional point of BMI predicted a
near 6 ½ month earlier onset of Alzheimer’s disease. That
is, an Alzheimer’s patient whose midlife BMI was 30 (a number signaling
obesity) on average developed the disease around one year earlier than
a patient whose midlife BMI was 28 (a number in the range of being overweight).
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, one of
several types of brain disorders that progressively impair memory, speech
and other cognitive functions. More than 5 million Americans, mostly over
the age of 60, are currently living with Alzheimer’s. “Alzheimer’s
is caused by a complex mix of factors,” says Dr. Zand, “and
obesity is believed to be one of those factors. Age and gender are important
too: the risk of Alzheimer’s goes up after age 60, and more women
live with the disease than men. A family history of Alzheimer’s
also makes it more likely that a person will develop the disease.”
Some of the risk factors for Alzheimer’s—like family history—cannot
be changed. But other risk factors, like obesity, high cholesterol and
high blood pressure, can be reduced by modifying one’s behavior.
Dr. Zand says, “Research into whether lifestyle choices can prevent
or reverse the onset of dementia has returned mixed results. But since
maintaining a healthy weight is already such an integral part of preventing
heart disease and other problems, it makes sense to address obesity through
diet and exercise, both as part of an overall wellness strategy and as
protection against cognitive decline. When you take care of your heart,
you take care of your brain.”
“It is important at every stage of life to avoid being obese,”
Dr. Zand adds, “but people tend to gain weight easier as they age,
and it is often more difficult for older people to shed extra pounds.
This is another reason to see your primary care physician regularly, because
measuring BMI is one of the routine tests performed during a checkup.
Your doctor can evaluate your BMI and offer advice about finding the right
exercise program and eating a more nutritious diet to meet your weight
What good advice has your doctor given you about your BMI? Share a comment below.
Learn more about
Dr. Zand. Learn more about
St. Joseph Hospital Affiliated Physicians.