Study examines effects of obesity on future health

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Obesity creates a high risk for dementia later in life, according to a study by UT researchers.

The study, released Tuesday in the scientific journal “Obesity,” found that insulin sensitivity varies according to weight and diet, leaving overweight patients at risk of life-altering side effects.

Andreana Haley, an assistant psychology professor and one of the researchers on the study, said scientists have been aware of the increased risks of memory loss in obese people and the researchers aimed to find a way to stop dementia before it happened.

“Midlife obesity has long been recognized as a risk factor for cognitive impairment later in life,” Haley said.

Haley said higher insulin levels caused by obesity correspond to brain vulnerability and to memory loss.

Multiple grants paid for the research, including funds from the National Institute of Nursing Research and from the American Heart Association.

Haley said conducting the research and gathering information was a somewhat costly task, but the cost was well worth the research if it leads to prevention.

“MRI scans are a bit more expensive than weight measurements, though much cheaper than the long-term care for patients with severe cognitive impairment,” Haley said.

Diet and exercise are effective at addressing many of the physical consequences of obesity. Now, researchers will try to find out if better diet and exercise will have a positive impact on insulin sensitivity, said psychology graduate student and study researcher Mitzi Gonzales.

“The next goal is to complete the exercise intervention study to determine if lifestyle changes reduced the observed alterations,” Gonzales said. “We’d also like to do studies to determine if the findings have value for predicting cognitive outcomes later in life.”

Gonzales said the main goal of the study was to create awareness about the risk of obesity and memory loss, and also to encourage a manageable means of prevention.

“Given that there is no cure for dementia, our best strategy for preserving cognitive health throughout the lifespan is prevention,” she said.

Thomas Blevins of the Texas Diabetes and Endocrinology Center said not only does obesity cause problems with insulin sensitivity levels, but it also leads to more serious problems.

“We have seen cases of obesity result in dementia, but it goes even further,” he said. “Obesity plays a significant role in diabetes, and if it isn’t controlled it can lead to paralysis, amputations and can even be fatal.”