Hidden Belly Fat and Alzheimer’s Disease: What the Research Says

'Beer belly,' 'pooch belly,' 'menopot belly' — all of these names are commonly used to refer to visceral body fat around the waist-hip area, but what's not commonly known is the way belly fat alters our brain function. Recent studies have uncovered a possible link between belly fat and dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. Naturally, a few questions arise: how does this happen, and how can it be prevented? Read on to learn more about the tie between belly fat and Alzheimer's disease.

Key takeaways:

In its special report for 2023, the Alzheimer's Association noted that over 6 million Americans are currently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. This number is projected to reach 12.7 million by 2050. At present, the cost of managing dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, is estimated to be over $345 billion, which will eventually increase to $1 trillion in 2050. While hardly the only aspect, the research expenses and costs of care for all affected by the disease, family and friends included, is still a contributing factor urging both health officials and families to look for ways to prevent Alzheimer's.

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What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer's disease is characterized by memory lapses, language impairment, and poor judgment. These symptoms are caused due to the degeneration of neurons and the presence of abnormal proteins in the brain. As the disease advances, more neurons degenerate, resulting in severe symptoms that interfere with activities of daily living. Although drugs can help in managing some symptoms, they cannot reverse the disease, and hence, the medical community focuses on dementia prevention.

Some of the risk factors of dementia cannot be changed — for example, age and genetics. However, some factors can be modified to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. One of the modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer's disease is midlife fat or belly fat. This visceral fat can lead to chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

The visceral fat can be diagnosed by imaging modalities such as MRI or skinfold measurements. But simple tape measurements are often sufficient to make a preliminary diagnosis. The American Heart Association notes that a waist circumference of more than 40 inches for men and more than 35 inches for women would be considered overweight/obese. The World Health Organization recommends measuring waist-to-hip ratio, which needs to be 0.85 or less for women and 0.9 or less for men. Higher values indicate the presence of belly fat.

Does the location of the fat deposit matter?

Depending on its location, fat deposits can lead to various diseases. Research has shown that visceral adipose tissue increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. These two diseases, in turn, increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, belly fat is more dangerous than overall increased body mass index (BMI).

Low lower-body fat mass (in hips and thighs), too, increases the risk of cardiometabolic diseases. Ectopic fat is the abnormal fat deposition around organs such as the liver or pancreas. This type of fat is usually associated with obesity and insulin resistance.

How does belly fat influence brain function?

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Visceral fat is associated with structural changes in the brain. Increased visceral fat is associated with a decreased total brain volume. Increased visceral fat is also associated with a thinner cortex, which is the top layer of the brain. Elevated visceral fat correlates with a smaller hippocampus, the brain area found active in memory tasks. The changes caused by visceral fat are not limited to the structure but also impact the function of the brain.

Visceral fat secretes various hormones such as leptin, chemerin, and resistin. When belly fat increases, altered patterns of secretion of these hormones result in neuroinflammation, neurodegeneration, increased oxidative stress, and accumulation of abnormal proteins in the brain. Eventually, patients experience cognitive deficits, such as impaired memory performance, attentional lapses, and poor judgment.

Do we need to reduce belly fat?

Belly fat has been associated with certain health conditions. Reducing belly fat lowers the risk of various diseases such as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise and diet can be a great help in reducing belly fat.

Although there is no consensus about localized fat loss, a research study has found promising results in reducing belly fat with spot reduction protocol. The study compared fat loss between the spot reduction training group and the resistance training group after 8 weeks of training. The spot reduction group performed abdominal, tricep, and aerobic exercises, while the resistance training group performed back, shoulder, arm, and lower limb exercises. The study reported overall weight loss and loss of abdominal under-skin fat in the spot reduction group. However, further clinical trials are necessary before spot reduction training can be practiced widely.

Adopting a heart-healthy diet, such as a Mediterranean diet, also helps in reducing belly fat and, thereby, the chances of Alzheimer's disease. Mediterranean diet includes whole grains, vegetables, nuts, fruits, and olive oil. Moderate amounts of dairy products, fish, and poultry are also permissible while following a Mediterranean diet. Giving up on sweets and sodas also helps in reducing overall body weight.

In conclusion, if left unchecked, 12.7 million people will experience Alzheimer’s disease by 2050. As belly fat is a modifiable risk factor, reducing belly fat helps in potentially preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Regular exercise and diet also help maintain brain function. Talk to your doctor and nutritionist to determine the exercise and diet options for you.

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