Too Much Fat Can Weigh on the Mind

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Chronic inflammation associated with a high BMI appears to be a risk factor not only for heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and other disorders, but also for impairments in cognitive functioning.

For many years now, scientists have been warning about the dangers of carrying around too much excess weight. Obesity increases the risk of developing many illnesses, and those over the age of 40 who are not sufficiently conscientious about their diet and level of exercise are particularly prone to developing what scientists call the metabolic syndrome. That’s the syndrome caused by consuming too many calories from foods with a high glycemic index — generally, foods containing simple sugars and starches. Over time, this can result in accumulating too much belly fat. Carrying around that excess belly fat increases the risk for a wide variety of different diseases including cancer, heart and cardiovascular disease, and especially Type II Diabetes.

Several studies have suggested that at the heart of increased risk for many disorders, including metabolic and cardiovascular disorders, is inflammation, especially chronic inflammation. Recently, some evidence has emerged that inflammation impacts the brain as well, likely increasing the risk of impaired cognitive functioning, especially in the elderly.

Doctoral student Kyle Bourassa and psychology professor David Sbarra at the University of Arizona examined data from a large-scale longitudinal study and, as previous studies have also suggested, found a correlation between high body mass index (BMI) and decreased cognitive functioning. When they analyzed the data further, it appeared that inflammation is behind this decrease in functioning; the higher your BMI, the higher levels of inflammation are likely to be in your body, including your brain, and along with that higher inflammation comes an increased risk of impairment in your cognitive functioning.

In my work over the years as a therapist, I had become increasingly mindful of the overall wellness of my patients. All of our body’s systems work together and affect one another, and I’ve witnessed many a person I’ve worked with come to new levels of overall psychological health by tending also to their physical fitness. Of course, to provide good modeling to my patients, I had to practice what I preached, and I’m happy that I was able to make and keep the firm commitment to do just that. In the process, I learned a big lesson about the importance of fitness to cognitive health.

Not many years ago, I was 85 pounds overweight — and having a relatively sedentary occupation and no regular exercise or fitness regimen, I was also significantly out of shape. It’s also probably no accident that around the same time I began experiencing some significant cognitive difficulties. First, there was a major cardiovascular stroke-like event that resulted in a temporary (and fortunately, largely reversible) global amnesia. And because without fully realizing it I kept having smaller similar events, I developed serious memory problems. These problems were significant enough that despite the absence of clear indications on brain imaging tests, doctors were certain this was the beginning of a progressive dementia, most likely of the Alzheimer’s type. The consensus was that things would likely only get worse but that there were still some things I could do to slow the progression. Chief among these things were to keep mentally active and get as fit as possible. So I began a program I’ve been on ever since. And while for the first couple of years I still experienced slow but noticeable declines in certain areas, in recent years, there has been no detectable progression. I still need the aid of a couple of good medicines, but my doctors and I agree that my newly improved and maintained level of fitness has been a significant factor.

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After seven years of very conscientious fitness monitoring, I’ve allowed myself at times to get a little lax. This is a dangerous slippery slope when it comes to overall wellness. Sometimes, my body sends some strong messages about this, but often the messages may be subtle and go unnoticed. Fortunately, I’ve learned to pay better attention, so I’m now paying attention to all the messages and have re-dedicated myself to more faithful adherence to my fitness regimen in recent months.

Medical science and some remarkable drugs have been helping us all live longer and better. But drugs can’t do it all, and they’re not the ultimate answer. We have to do our part to foster our overall health. Researchers have known for a long time that our lifestyles — especially our diet and exercise habits — produce chronic inflammation in our systems, and the evidence has been mounting that such inflammation is at the root of many diseases that we can do a lot to prevent. Now evidence is accumulating that we can stay sharper mentally if we get and stay fit physically. I can personally attest to the truth of this. I know the excess belly baggage I’d been carrying around for years didn’t just weigh on my back, knees, and overall stamina. It also weighed negatively on my mind. So I’ll do my best to stay as fit as possible. That’ll bring some real comfort — and it will truly take a load off.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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