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Excess Weight in Middle Age Linked to Alzheimer's Disease

Being Overweight, Obese at Midlife Raises Dementia Risk, Study Suggests
By Cari Nierenberg
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Overweight couple

May 2, 2011 -- There's a new reason to keep middle-age spread to a minimum: Being overweight or obese in your 40s or 50s may increase your odds of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia later in life, a study finds.

"Our results contribute to the growing evidence that controlling body weight or losing weight in middle age could reduce your risk of dementia," says study researcher Weili Xu, MD, PhD, of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden.

In this new study, published in the May 3 issue of Neurology, researchers looked at 8,534 twins aged 65 and older who participated in the Swedish Twin Registry.

Thirty years earlier, the registry had collected self-reported heights and weights from each twin. Nearly 30% of them were overweight or obese in middle age.

Three decades later, scientists gathered data about each twin's current weight, height, health status and medical history, and educational background. They also did a telephone interview to rate their cognitive skills, asking 1,450 people to come in for a follow-up exam.

Twins Offer New Clues to Dementia Risk

After receiving neurological tests, 350 participants, or about 4% of the twins, were diagnosed with dementia. This included 232 cases of Alzheimer's disease and 74 with vascular dementia, the most common type of dementia after Alzheimer's.

Another 114 people had possible dementia.

This study found that 39% of twins diagnosed with dementia had been overweight in midlife and 7% of them had been obese. Compared to twins who did not have dementia, people with memory problems were also older, had a lower level of education, and were more likely to have diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.

Scientists also looked at twosomes where one twin had dementia and the other did not. But they did not find a significant relationship between being overweight or obese at midlife and dementia when evaluating this group.

"This suggests that early life environmental factors and genetic factors may contribute to the link between overweight and dementia," says Xu. Twins also have similar childhood nutrition and socioeconomic situations.

How Excess Pounds May Harm the Brain

Although the biological mechanisms are unclear, the Swedish scientists offer several explanations for why excess weight in middle age could influence brain health down the road. For one thing, heavier people have a higher risk for diabetes and stroke, which are linked with a greater chance of dementia.

Also, excess body fat results in higher levels of inflammatory chemicals and hormones circulating in the body. Some of these substances, such as the appetite-regulating hormone leptin and C-reactive protein, may affect cognitive function, the researchers say.

Although additional research is needed on weight and cognitive decline, the researchers say that maintaining a healthy adult weight or slimming down if you’re overweight or obese may help prevent dementia.

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