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Excess Weight on Hips Linked to Memory Problems

Study Shows Connection Between Memory Loss and Location of Fat in Obese Women
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

July 14, 2010 -- Older women who are obese are more likely to experience memory problems, especially if their excess weight is located around their hips, a new study shows.

And researchers say the location of the fat seems to be important -- that it's worse for memory if it's around the hips than if it's located around women's waists.

Diana R. Kerwin, MD, an assistant professor of medicine and a physician at Northwestern Medicine at Northwestern University, examined data from the Women's Health Initiative hormone trials involving 8,745 cognitively normal, postmenopausal women ages 65 to 79.

Participants received an evaluation of brain function designed to detect cognitive and memory states, answered health and lifestyle questions, and submitted to measurements of height, weight, body circumference, and blood pressure.

Body mass index (BMI) is a statistical measure of a person's body -- calculated using weight and height. A BMI of 18.5 suggests a person is underweight, 18.5-24.9 is normal weight, 25-29.9 means the person is overweight, and 30 and higher is obese.

The researchers say their study shows that for every one-point increase in a woman's BMI, her memory score dropped by a point on a 100-point memory test called the Modified Mini-Mental Status Examination.

"The message is obesity and a higher Body Mass Index are not good for your cognition and your memory," Kerwin says in a news release. "While the women's scores were still in the normal range, the added weight definitely had a detrimental effect."

'Pear' Shaped vs. 'Apple' Shaped

Women who have excess weight around their hips are known as "pear" shapes, and those with extra weight around their waists "apple" shapes.

Kerwin says the reason pear-shaped women experience more memory loss and brain function deterioration than their apple-shaped counterparts is likely related to the type of fat deposited around the hips vs. the waist.

"Obesity is bad, but its effects are worse depending on where the fat is located," Kerwin says.

Cytokines -- hormones released by the predominant kind of fat in the body that can cause inflammation -- likely affect cognition, she says.

Scientists have already shown in previous research that different kinds of fat release different cytokines and have different effects on insulin resistance, lipids, and blood pressure.

"We need to find out if one kind of fat is more detrimental than the other and how it affects brain function," Kerwin says. "The fat may contribute to the formation of plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease or a restricted blood flow to the brain."

The findings should provide guidance to doctors treating or counseling overweight patients, the researchers say.

"The study tells us if we have a woman in our office and we know from her waist-to-hip ratio that she's carrying excess fat on her hips, we might be more aggressive with weight loss," Kerwin says. "We can't change where your fat is located, but having less of it is better."

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