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Does being Overweight or Obese affect your Brain?

By: Ann Marie Coppen

Anne Marie Coppen

PhD, FNP, Nurse Practitioner

For a personal response to your health question, Ask Ann Marie at askannmarie@lindora.com. Selected questions will be featured in future columns.

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overweight/obesityBeing obese or overweight can affect brain health. Studies have shown that in addition to the impact obesity has on the joints, organs, and heart, it may also promote cognitive decline/dementia.

Research conducted at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), revealed that elderly obese individuals (body mass index [BMI] 30 and above) had 8% lower brain mass when compared to their normal weight counterparts. Overweight individuals (BMI 25-30) had 4% less brain tissue than individuals of normal weight. Although they were elderly, the individuals had no brain degenerative disease such as Parkinson or Alzheimer’s. The study indicated that simply a 4% loss epitomizes “severe” brain degeneration. Losing such an amount of brain tissue can put you at greater risk for Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

A study published in Pediatrics showed that overweight and obese teens also experienced negative cognitive function. The study indicated shrinkage of the brain’s hippocampus which influences conversion of short term memory to lasting memories. On average, overweight teenagers scored 10% less than their normal weight peers.

Another study recently published in Neurology by European researchers indicated that obesity in and of itself increases the speed of mental decline over time. They indicated that there is no “healthy overweight” when it comes to safeguarding your mind.

The areas most affected in the brain with degeneration for overweight individuals include (Human Brain Map):

  • Attention and execution functions (Anterior cingulated gyrus)
  • Long term memory (hipoccampus)
  • Proper movement and coordination (basal ganglia)
  • Planning and memory (frontal and temporal lobes)

Normal-brain  Overweight brain


Left: Brain scan from a normal person. The dark, butterfly-shaped area in the center of the brain is spinal fluid. Right: Brain scan from a person with a loss of brain tissue. The dark, butterfly-shaped area in the center of the brain is spinal fluid. It is larger than it should be because the spinal fluid expands to fill up the space left by loss of brain tissue. Both photos courtesy of the American Academy of Neurology.




Possible reasons overweight or obese individuals’ lose brain tissue may include:

  • High blood pressure may damage the neural pathways necessary for proper decision making and cognitive function.
  • Small strokes: Many individuals have small strokes without any signs or symptoms. This results in lack of oxygenation to certain areas in the brains that can compromise brain function.
  • Diabetes has been associated with a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The reason may be that there is a reduction in size of the hippocampus.
  • Metabolic Syndrome is a condition where three out of five predetermined variables increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes. If you have three out of five abnormal levels: high blood pressure, high blood sugar, a waist circumference greater than 35 inches for women & 40 inches for men, high triglycerides, and low High Density Lipoprotein (good cholesterol) – then you have Metabolic Syndrome.
  • Increased Cortisol hormone levels hormone (high Cortisol levels are associated with obesity, especially abdominal obesity).
  • Increased insulin levels: This increase in insulin is not only harmful to the body but also to the brain.

What you can do to keep your brain healthy:

  • Observe your blood pressure. Weight loss, monitoring sodium consumption, and exercise can help lower your blood pressure. If this does not result in lower blood pressure then perhaps you need blood pressure medication.
  • Keep your blood sugars well controlled. Diabetes can injure small blood vessels and shrink parts of the brain.
  • Engage in mentally stimulating activities such as reading or taking classes.
  • Stay socially active.

Making healthier choices and exercising regularly can put a stop to cognitive decline. In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition indicated that overweight or obese individuals who lost weight were able to restore cognitive function.

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