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We all know the various detrimental health effects that obesity can cause to our bodies, but a new study published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging reveals a new potentially serious threat: obesity can cause our brains to age faster than normal.

The cross-sectional study, which was conducted by the Cambridge Centre for Aging and Neuroscience, recruited 473 individuals from the ages of 20 to 87. The data was divided into two groups: lean and overweight. In order to calculate the differences in age between brains, the researchers looked at the volume of white matter in them. White matter, found in the brain, is composed of bundles of axons which connect gray matter together. This helps carry nerve impulses through neurons. The brains of overweight people typically contain a lesser volume of white matter than those of their lean counterparts.

Obesity has potential to affect our brains.

Image Source: Sherbrooke Connectivity Imaging Lab (SCIL)

The team then turned to calculating how volume of white matter relates to the age of the participant. They found that an overweight person at the age of 40 had around the same level of white matter as a lean person at the age of 50. In other words, the brains of overweight participants were consistently about 10 years older than the brains of their lean counterparts. However, it is noted that this was only found from middle-age onwards, suggesting that obesity only starts affecting white matter volume starting from this age. This brings in a new perspective on the vulnerability of middle-age adults to obesity, and creates opportunities for research on how to reverse these changes with weight loss.

Despite the differences in white matter volume, no difference in cognitive ability was found between overweight and lean participants. A test similar to an IQ test was conducted to verify this.

The study has opened doors to future research on the brain’s structural changes due to obesity.

According to co-author professor Sadaf Farooqi, “We don’t yet know the implications of these changes in brain structure. Clearly, this must be a starting point for us to explore in more depth the effects of weight, diet and exercise on the brain and memory.”

Feature Image Source: Obese by Marjan Lazarevski

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