Obesity and Cognitive Impairment

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In an age where knowledge and thought processes are valued equally to, or greater than, physical prowess it has become common to move less with the notion of devoting more time to our work. Let’s face it “busy” has become a four letter word and a poor excuse for mistreating ourselves. Inactivity, high fat and processed diets, stress, and a plethora of other factors have led to concerning statistics reported in Canada in 2010 where:

  • One in Four adult Canadians are clinically obese.
  • One in Ten children in Canada are clinically obese.

The Centre for Disease Control reports that obesity increases the probability of many chronic health conditions like:

  • Coronary heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.
  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • Cancers, such as endometrial, breast, and colon cancer.
  • High total cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides.
  • Liver and gallbladder disease.
  • Sleep apnea and respiratory problems.
  • Degeneration of cartilage and underlying bone within a joint (osteoarthritis).
  • Reproductive health complications such as infertility.
  • Mental health conditions.

The list of chronic health conditions correlated with obesity is expanding as quickly as the waistlines of the North American population. What is even more concerning is the toll that a higher body fat percentage plays on the way we think and how we move. A recent article written by Allison Miller, and Sarah Spencer reviewed the research published over the past 10 years analyzing the interrelationship between obesity and cognitive function.  A higher body mass index and waist circumference have been associated with:

  • Brain atrophy: not only is the brain less active, it has been shown that the total volume decreases.  The reduction of size was most noted in the hippocampus and gray matter which is associated with cognitive function and memory. There has been a correlation between obesity and dementia related diseases like Alzheimer’s and Vascular Dimentia.
  • Dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which, as I mentioned in last week’s blog, is important the probability of developing depression, anxiety and other stress-related mood disorders.
  • Chronic low-grade whole-body inflammation: it looks as if obesity is both caused by and causes inflammation. Fat cells produce inflammatory chemicals and receptors while high fat foods also signal the production of the same cytokines and cells involved in the process. This can be associated with many chronic health conditions, allergy, and mental illness.
  • Inflammation in the brain: this is a relatively new discovery. High fat diets can increase the production of chemicals that promote inflammation in parts of the brain like the hypothalamus resulting in changes in hunger cues, metabolism, reproduction, cardiovascular function, and more. Inflammation in the hypothalamus also leads to dysregulation in the HPA axis.
  • Activation of the brain’s immune cells leading to remodelling of the synapses and neuron death and the prevention of the formation of new neurons. The prolonged immune cell activation is related to brain atrophy because of its neurodegenerative capabilities.

Ultimately what research is showing is the separation of the mind from the body cannot exist; something has to give when we forgo physical well being. We cannot sacrifice our physical health without eventually experiencing issues like chronic health conditions, mental illnesses, and many other diseases. Many of our current health concerns can be linked to physical and mental stressors and an inability to deal with them; part of our natural coping mechanism is movement since it expends energy on things that are productive for our bodies. The amazing thing is that our bodies are very resilient! Exercise, proper nutrition, and a many other health interventions have been proven to improve things like: attention, memory, and cognitive function. It is never too late to get out there and get active!

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About Chris Tse

I’m a scientist turned owner of Blitz Conditioning, a Fitness Columnist at CBC Radio on Thursdays at 8:20 am, and owner of Tse Social Strategy. Follow me on Twitter or Read my full bio.

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