Is Obesity a Risk Factor for Alzheimer’s disease?
— By Andrea M. Pampaloni, Ph.D.
Although Age is the Greatest Risk Factor for Alzheimer’s disease, there is Strong Evidence that Obesity also plays a Role
Among Americans 65-years or older, roughly 6.2 million live with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. It is a top cause of death in this age group. Without a cure or as-of-yet undiscovered treatment, it is fully possible that this number may more than double over the next generation. And although age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, there is strong evidence that obesity also plays a role.
Alzheimer’s disease is well-researched but remains a mysterious disease, often raising more questions than are answered. Plaques and tangles are the likely cause of damage and death of nerve cells, with plaques collecting in the spaces between nerve cells, and tangles building up inside them. While there is strong evidence that both of these proteins contribute strongly to Alzheimer’s disease, their specific role in contributing to the memory loss and challenges of daily tasks characteristic of Alzheimer’s is not. Further, not everyone with Alzheimer’s have plaques and tangles, while autopsies find that others who remain cognitively competent through their death were riddled with plaques and tangles.
The impact of Alzheimer’s and dementia goes far beyond the diagnosed patient, with family members often becoming caretakers as their loved one’s cognitive capacity decreases. The financial, emotional and social impact extends beyond families to the larger society as this population continues to age and their likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s increases.
Associations between Obesity and Brain Structure
A study published earlier this year found interesting associations between obesity and brain structure.1 People with a higher BMI, but still within a healthy weight range, were found to have higher levels of gray matter volume. This is important because degraded gray matter is a sign of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers proposed that a healthy level of fat might provide resources to the brain that could help ward off damage.
The same study found negative associations between obesity and gray matter volume in participants with mild Alzheimer’s and those who were healthy. These findings support previous research that found mid-life obesity to be a risk factor for dementia.2 Research also has found connections between the gut microbiome and brain function that sheds light on neurodegeneration related to obesity. Because Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease with several stages from preclinical, mild, moderate to severe, it is all the more important to lose weight at a younger age as a preventive measure.
Can a Very Low Calorie Diet Help?
Weight is one of several modifiable Alzheimer’s risks, which also includes diabetes and hypertension — comorbidities of obesity — making it the starting point for treatment, particularly because these risk factors contribute to around 30 percent of dementia cases. Weight loss using a Very Low Calorie Diet (VLCD) can address all of these conditions. VLCDs as part of a weight loss program can help improve hypertension, reduce or eliminate the need for diabetes medication and lessen depression, a common symptom of Alzheimer’s patients. VLCDs are nutritionally sound, well-tolerated and convenient and thus may be a good option for Alzheimer’s patients with obesity who may forget to eat or be overwhelmed with food preparation or choices.
- Obesity and Brain Vulnerability in Normal and Abnormal Aging: A Multimodal MRI Study
- Obesity and Alzheimer’s Disease, Does the Obesity Paradox Really Exist? A Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study
About the Author: Dr. Andrea Pampaloni has over 20 years of communication experience across corporate, academic, nonprofit and government sectors. She provides research and writing services on a range of business issues and industry-specific topics to prepare white papers, articles, proposals, presentations, technical content, and speaking points, as well as marketing-communications content such as blogs, website content, newsletters, news releases and award submissions. Dr. Pampaloni’s research findings have been presented at national and international conferences and published in peer-reviewed journals, and she is a ghostwriter for three books, a Forbes article, and several corporate blogs.