According to the American Heart Association and other leading authorities, the size of your waist is one of the strongest predictors of heart disease and diabetes. The experts’ recommendation? Waist size should be less than half your height in inches. (For men of average height, that’s less than 35 inches; for women, less than 32.5 inches.) If you don’t fall within the guidelines, you might want to start making more of an effort to get there: New research shows that the dangers of fat are not just from the diseases it might cause tomorrow. The real threat is how adipose tissue reduces your brain function today.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers discovered that brain function and capability are decreased in obese compared to lean women. Moreover, when obese women slim down (the study focused on bariatric surgery), the brain responds and the ill effects of extra weight are reversed. If you’ve ever wondered how to get motivated to exercise, the findings from the study, plus compelling evidence of how fat interferes with both your body and your brain, might be just what you need to keep up your physical activity as the holiday season approaches.
How Fat Affects Your Body and Brain
Scientists have long been proving that fat creates adverse reactions in the body. From the likelihood of an increase in developing Alzheimer’s disease (35% if you’re obese) to Type II diabetes (more than 80% of those diagnosed are obese) to the way it affects blood pressure (which can damage kidneys) to osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, asthma, and cancer, fat can taste so good going down but it creates toxic situations when allowed to hang around. Underscoring this fact are the results of an independent study conducted through the Rand Corporation revealing that obesity is a more serious health risk than smoking, drinking, or living in poverty.
While you’re enjoying that extra piece of cheesecake, the “someday” problems that fat might cause can seem too far away for concern. But consider what might be happening today:
- Scientific research suggests that the presence of fat increases the number of proteins in the brain. This triggers a succession of events that can predispose you to disease.
- Fat cells manufacture and release substances that flow throughout your body—including into your heart and muscles, where they trigger processes that produce inflammation. This sets the stage for many illnesses, including depression.
- Insulin resistance, caused by obesity, is linked to an increase in fatty acids, oxidative stress, and inflammation.
- Prolonged “cerebral metabolic activity” (how obese people’s brains process sugar) can cause structural damage that contributes to cognitive loss and decline.
- Since the brain contains zero fat cells, scientists once believed that it was immune to the presence of fat. New research with animals, however, suggests otherwise: Obesity weakens the blood-brain barrier and allows seepage. The substances released by fat cells (especially interleukin-1) do, in fact, trickle into the brain itself.
- In lab animals, research has proven that fat alters cognition, memory function, and learning skills.
- The Journal of Neuroscience published results of research conducted at the Medical College of Georgia Regents University proving that in mice, when interleukin-1 migrates to the brain, it (1) interferes with the hippocampus (responsible for memory and learning) and (2) reduces the health of synapses (which allow your neurons to send messages).
While these facts and their implications paint a negative picture of the way too many ice cream sundaes can weaken both your body and mind, new research shows how you can change the picture with either a dramatic gesture or one simple lifestyle change.
What the New Research Means to You
At an obesity treatment center at a public university in Brazil, researchers decided to investigate two issues: how bariatric surgery affects cognitive function and cerebral metabolism. What they discovered is both relieving and inspiring.
Thirty-three women were chosen for the study: 17 severely obese and 16 lean. Prior to the surgery, the women’s brains showed areas of troubled function via neuropsychological tests and positron emission tomography. A key element researchers noted was that the brains of these women metabolized sugars at a faster rate than the control group did. Following the surgery, however, the women showed both improvement in how their brains metabolized sugars and increased cognitive skills, especially related to executive function. Since the women were followed for 24 weeks after the surgery, the findings suggest that the harmful effects of fat reverse when the fat is removed—and fairly quickly.
It’s easy to look at the number on your scale and think, “What’s done is done.” Until recently, researchers weren’t sure how, exactly, fat affects the brain, nor did they know whether those effects could be counteracted. The Brazilian results go a long way toward proving both. Coupled with the results of the study conducted at the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents (which ultimately proved that exercise in the form of treadmill training for obese mice can normalize hippocampal function), the clear takeaways are that reducing fat creates both a decline in your likelihood of diseases in the long-term and an increase in your mental faculties in the short-term. In the words of Dr. Alexis Stranahan (who oversaw the Georgia Regents study): “Get out and move.”
Science supports that having a consistent exercise program is about more than having a body that looks and feels good; it’s about having a brain that works better for you, too.