Obesity Linked to Poor Cognitive Health

A study of 6401 Whitehall civil servants has revealed that obesity and metabolic abnormalities, including high blood sugar, abnormal lipid levels and high blood pressure, can increase the risk of cognitive decline. The research, by scientists at the INSERM research institute in Paris and University College London, are published on 21 August in the journal Neurology.

Research groups have been following Whitehall civil servants for a number of decades, gaining valuable insight into risk factors for ill health. This research, part of the Whitehall II study, followed 4556 male and 1845 female civil servants over a ten year period to look for factors influencing cognitive decline. The average age of the volunteers was 50 at the start of the study.

Over the course of the study, each civil servant was assessed for body mass index (BMI), metabolic status and cognitive function. Metabolic status took into account blood pressure, blood lipid levels and blood sugar levels. Volunteers were classed as having a ‘metabolic abnormality’ if two of the measures were out of the normal range, including high blood pressure, high blood glucose or diabetes, low levels of ‘protective’ HDL cholesterol, or high levels of triglycerides in blood. Cognitive status was tested three times over the ten year period using memory and thinking tests.

The team found that cognitive performance at the start of the study was poorer in those with a higher BMI in the metabolically normal group, suggesting obesity to be a standalone risk factor for cognitive decline. For volunteers of a normal weight, metabolic abnormality was also associated with poorer performance on memory and thinking tests.

When looking over the ten year period, the scientists observed a trend towards faster cognitive decline with increasing BMI in volunteers with metabolic abnormalities, suggesting both may contribute to memory and thinking problems later in life.

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“This large study of Whitehall civil servants may not be representative of the population as a whole, but it does provide valuable insight into the potential risk factors for cognitive decline. We do not yet know why obesity and metabolic abnormality are linked to poorer brain performance, but with obesity levels on the rise, it will be important to delve a little deeper into this association.

“While the study itself focuses on cognitive decline, previous research suggests that a healthy diet, regular exercise, not smoking and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol in midlife can also help stave off dementia. With dementia figures spiralling towards a million, the findings suggest we should be conscious of our general health throughout life.”

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