Obesity has been linked to countless health problems including heart disease, diabetes, and even shorter lifespans. Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge in England believe they’ve uncovered yet another health risk to carrying too much weight: it may add years to your brain.
Study author Lisa Ronan and her colleagues analyzed the brain matter of close to 500 adults between the ages of 20 and 87, about half of whom were considered normal weight while the others were either overweight or obese. Based on their findings, published last month in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, the researchers now believe being heavier may contribute to premature aging of the brain due to the impact on the brain’s white matter.
White matter facilitates communication between different areas of the brain, and while it typically shrinks with age, researchers discovered a greater reduction in white matter volume among the overweight and obese participants—especially those in middle age and older. In fact, in terms of healthy white matter, the brain of a 50-year-old obese person was roughly a decade older than that of a normal-weight person of the same age.
Just how does carrying too much weight as we grow older affect the amount of white matter in the brain? Researchers are still unsure, but one theory is that white matter is sensitive to the heightened inflammation triggered by excess fat cells. Additional studies are underway, but Ronan says there is a possibility that being overweight may raise the risk of developing disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.