A link between belly fat and dementia risk

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© James W. Porter/Corbis

Having excess belly fat in middle-age may increase the risk for dementia later in life, according to results of a new study published this week in the Annals of Neurology. In an analysis of 733 middle-aged men and women, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine found that not only was higher body mass index (BMI) associated with reduced total brain volume — which previous research has linked to dementia risk — but that the correlation was even more pronounced among individuals with belly fat, or high concentrations of fat around their organs.

What’s more, the researchers noted that, independent of total body weight, the associated between belly fat and decreased brain volume persisted. The study adds to earlier research suggesting a link between obesity and dementia risk, including a 2008 study published in the journal Neurology that found that individuals who had higher amounts of belly fat in their 40s were more likely to exhibit signs of cognitive decline as they got older.

This latest study included 733 men and women with an average age of 60. Nearly three quarters of the study population (70%) was female. While the study authors conclude that more research is vital to understanding the relationship between obesity — and more specifically belly fat — on dementia risk, the preliminary findings indicate that having a big belly may have a broad range of negative health effects. As the head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, Dr. Susanne Sorensen, told the BBC:

“We have all heard how a beer belly can be bad for our heart, but this study suggests carrying excess abdominal weight could also increase your risk of getting dementia… This is not really surprising as a large stomach is associated with high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes — all major risk factors for dementia.”