Abdominal Fat and Brain Health — Are They Linked?

Fat in the abdominal area is associated with lower cognition in middle-aged men at a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease, according to a new study.

Abdominal fat has been linked to metabolic issues and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. It may also put women at a higher risk of breast cancer and the need for gallbladder surgery.

Now, a new study published in the journal Obesity suggests that fat surrounding internal organs — pancreas, liver, and belly fat — may lower brain volume and cognition.

The study was conducted on 204 healthy individuals with a family history of Alzheimer's disease, meaning they are at a higher risk of developing the neurodegenerative disorder.

Using MRI, the researchers investigated fat depots in the pancreas, liver, and abdomen.

"In middle-aged males at high Alzheimer's disease risk — but not females — higher pancreatic fat was associated with lower cognition and brain volumes, suggesting a potential sex-specific link between distinct abdominal fat with brain health," said Michal Schnaider Beeri, the lead author of the study and the Krieger Klein Endowed Chair in Neurodegeneration Research at BHI and a faculty member of the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research.

Obesity is a known risk factor for lower cognitive functioning and higher dementia risk, with different associations between sexes. For instance, obesity between the ages of 35-65 is linked to a 30% increased risk later in life. However, being overweight but not obese does not carry the same risk.

One of the tools to determine if someone is overweight or obese is body mass index (BMI), which is a person's weight in pounds or kilograms divided by the square of height in inches or meters. However, some say the measure is inaccurate, as people with high muscle mass may fall under the obese category.

The new study challenges the conventional use of BMI as the primary measure for assessing obesity-related cognitive risks. The authors said BMI poorly represents body fat distribution and does not necessarily account for sex differences.

Sapir Golan Shekhtman, a Ph.D. student at the Joseph Sagol Neuroscience Center at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel, said in a statement, "Our findings indicate stronger correlations compared to the relationships between BMI and cognition, suggesting that abdominal fat depots, rather than BMI, is a risk factor for lower cognitive functioning and higher dementia risk."

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