1. Health
Elizabeth Hartney, PhD

Does Obesity in Older Women Cause Poorer Brain Function?

By July 28, 2010

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Image © Asha ten Broeke

Image © Asha ten Broeke

We are all too aware of the physical harm caused by obesity, and it is now recognized as a major health concern in the US. But new research indicates it may also be related to poorer brain function, at least in older women.

A new study, published in the Journal of the Americal Geriatric Society, shows that obesity in post-menopausal women, and in particular, fat around the hips, is associated with poorer scores on mental tests assessing cognitive functions such as recall, verbal fluency, and writing.

As is often the case with this type of research, there is no way of knowing whether obesity causes poorer brain function, or whether poorer brain function occurs in obese women for some other reason. So we don't actually know whether losing weight would have any impact on brain function in these women. And as I argued in a previous blog, such misinterpretations of research data reinforce a dangerous negative stereotype that already exists about obese women.

And while the political and social agenda is, quite rightly, focused on giving people every possible motive to lose weight, the inference that fat on the hips actually causes loss of brain function is flawed, because there is no way of determining cause and effect in this type of study. So while there is every possibility that arguments such as those presented in The National Post, in which the study's author is quoted as advising, "The one thing you can control is your overall body weight -- what is your body mass index, how close are you to being within the normal range, and looking at that as a way to maintain brain health and cognition," are accurate, this study does not actually provide sufficient evidence to prove that keeping your weight within a normal range would, in fact, maintain brain health and cognition.

Don't get me wrong, I do think obesity is unhealthy and risky, and that it is a good idea for obese people to lose weight. But obese people have enough social stigma and low self esteem issues without being labelled as stupid as well. And the fear that they will fall behind their peers intellectually if they are unable to lose weight may add to low self esteem and depression, and reinforce food addiction as an unhealthy but accessible way of coping with negative emotions.

On the other hand, there is ample evidence that exercise has a positive impact on mental health, particularly in combating depression. You can start small with gentle exercise, and work up to a more advanced workout gradually, ensuring you don't take it too far and develop an exercise addiction. Make sure you consult your physician before starting an exercise program, particularly if you are underweight, overweight or obese.

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