Obesity harms brain health throughout life – yet scientists don’t know why

Anyone who has put on a few too many pounds knows they can slow you down. Over time, if those pounds grow into obesity, they may do serious harm, putting you at risk for a wide range of illnesses.

But too much weight on the body also can harm the brain.

Research shows obesity impacts brain health from childhood well into adulthood, affecting everything from executive function skills – the complex ability to initiate, plan and carry out tasks – to substantially raising dementia risk. By middle age, the consequences of excess weight are substantial. Several studies have shown middle-aged adults who have a body mass index (BMI) at or above 30, which qualifies as obesity, are more likely to get dementia than their healthy-weight peers.

Yet, researchers are still teasing out how and why the extra pounds harm the brain, and whether the higher dementia risk is cumulative over a lifetime or if obesity affects the body differently at different stages of life.

It’s also possible cognitive challenges come first, contributing to poor eating behaviors beginning in childhood, said Alexis Wood, an assistant professor of pediatric nutrition at the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The center is operated in partnership with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“There is pretty robust and substantial evidence that goes across the whole of childhood, from toddlerhood to adolescence, that shows a higher weight status is associated with lower cognitive functioning, particularly in the area of executive function,” she said. “Why that is, is the subject of much debate.”

With obesity steadily rising in the United States, it also is a subject of much concern.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 42% of adults qualified as obese in 2018 – and nearly 45% of them were 40 to 59 years old. Among children and teens, obesity rates rose with age: more than 13% of children under 5; 20% of 6- to 11-year-olds and 21% of those 12 to 19.

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