Study links belly fat to smaller brain

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Researchers from the U.K.'s Loughborough University and UCL discovered that people with a high body mass index (BMI) and high waist-to-hip ratio had brains that were 12 cubic centimetres smaller than people of a healthy weight.

The findings of the study, which was published in the journal Neurology on January 9, suggest that the combination of obesity and high waist-to-hip ratio could be a risk factor for brain shrinkage, which has been tied to elevated risk for memory decline and dementia.

The findings, published in the journal Neurology, showed that after adjusting for other factors that may affect brain volume, such as age, physical activity, smoking and high blood pressure, participants with a high BMI had a slightly lower grey matter volume than those with a healthy BMI.

Grey matter in the brain consists mostly of nerve cells while "white matter" is made up of connecting nerve fibres. People in the middle, with a high BMI but without high waist-to-hip ratio, had an of 793 cubic centimeters.

The study looked at more than 9,600 people across Britain, with an average age of 55. People with a BMI above 30.0 are considered obese. The latest study finds an intriguing link between body fat, especially around the middle, and the brain.

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Dr Mark Hamer, who led the study from Loughborough University, said: 'Our research looked at a large group of people and found obesity, specifically around the middle, may be linked with brain shrinkage'.

Experts note that more research is needed as to why there is a connection between obesity and brain volume. Based on these criteria, almost one in five of the study participants was found to be obese. In the end they found that high BMI linked to smaller brain volume. All of these brain regions are involved in motivation and reward.

Looking at both BMI as well as waist-to-hip ratio clarifies what role different types of body fat may play in affecting the brain, Hamer says. "Brain gray matter shrinkage...seems to be associated with obesity and with increased visceral fat", she said.

'The study adds to existing evidence highlighting a link between a healthy weight and a healthy brain, but the researchers didn't look at whether participants went on to develop diseases like Alzheimer's and this will need to be explored in future research'. It is possible that individuals with lower volumes of gray matter in some brain areas have increased the risk of obesity.