Study finds ‘surprising’ link between obesity and the brain

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PhD Scholar Ananthan Ambikairajah from the ANU Research School of Population Health. Photo: Lannon Harley, ANU.

AN ANU study has shed new light on Alzheimer’s disease after researchers found a link between obesity and shrinkage of the hippocampus – an area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. 

The researchers analysed brain scans from more than 20,000 healthy men and women aged between 40 and 70 years and found smaller hippocampus volumes in those who either currently or previously carried excessive weight or suffered from obesity.

“We examined the link between fat mass and the brain because previous research has shown that having excessive fat mass in midlife can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 35 percent,” says ANU PhD scholar, Mr Ananthan Ambikairajah.

“We found that people who suffered from obesity or carried excessive weight had a smaller hippocampus than those who maintained a normal weight.”

Mr Ambikairajah says the findings, published today (May 20) in the journal “Obesity”, emphasise the importance of maintaining a normal weight for brain health.

“It was surprising to find that people who suffered from obesity or carried excessive weight in the past, but currently had a normal level of fat mass, also had a smaller hippocampus than those who always maintained a normal weight,” he says.

“The hippocampus is one of the few regions that actually continues to form new cells as you get older and is often the first area of the brain to be impacted by Alzheimer’s disease.

“This study shows just how important it is to maintain a healthy amount of fat mass throughout life for both men and women.”

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