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Belly fat can impact brain health and increase risk for Alzheimer's, study finds

The research, involving 204 healthy middle-aged Alzheimer’s-dementia offspring, and measured fat depots in the pancreas, liver, and abdomen (CREDIT: Creative Commons)


Researchers at Rutgers Health have found that the impact of abdominal fat on brain health and cognition is more significant in middle-aged men at high risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to women.


In a study was published in the journal Obesity, and led by Michal Schnaider Beeri, director of the Herbert and Jacqueline Krieger Klein Alzheimer’s Research Center at Rutgers Brain Health Institute, and written by Sapir Golan Shekhtman, a Ph.D. student at the Joseph Sagol Neuroscience Center at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel.


 
 

The study discovered that the amount of fat in abdominal organs such as the pancreas, liver, and belly fat, is related to brain volumes and cognitive function in middle-aged individuals with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease.


Representative image of SegmentGUI. Abdominal fat tissues were manually categorized into color-coded groups, which included subcutaneous adipose tissue (purple and light blue), visceral adipose tissue (green), peri-muscular fat (pink), and nonclassified fat (red). (CREDIT: journal Obesity)


The research, involving 204 healthy middle-aged Alzheimer’s-dementia offspring, used MRI to measure fat depots in the pancreas, liver, and abdomen. "In middle-aged males at high Alzheimer's disease risk—but not females—higher pancreatic fat was associated with lower cognition and brain volumes, suggesting a potential sex-specific link between distinct abdominal fat with brain health,” explained Beeri.


 
 

Obesity is known to be a risk factor for lower cognitive functioning and higher dementia risk, with differing associations between sexes.


The study emphasizes the importance of investigating the relationships between fat depots, brain aging, and cognition while considering sex differences.


 

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It also challenges the conventional use of body mass index (BMI) as the primary measure for assessing obesity-related cognitive risks, as BMI poorly represents body fat distribution and does not account for sex differences.


“Our findings indicate stronger correlations compared to the relationships between BMI and cognition, suggesting that abdominal fat depots, rather than BMI, is a risk factor for lower cognitive functioning and higher dementia risk,” said Shekhtman.


 
 

In middle-aged males at high Alzheimer's dementia risk, but not in females, higher pancreatic fat was associated with lower cognition and brain volumes.


Linear regression for associations of regional abdominal adiposity with BMI in males and females. Covariates: age, sex, education, and the time between assessments. The bold values are the associations/tests that are statistically significant. Abbreviations: SAT, subcutaneous adipose tissue; VAT, visceral adipose tissue. (CREDIT: journal Obesity)


These findings pave the way for targeted interventions and further exploration of sex-specific approaches to understand and mitigate the impact of abdominal fat on brain health, according to Shekhtman.


 
 

What was known prior to the study?


  • Alzheimer's dementia (AD) research is shifting toward the identification of populations at high risk to facilitate disentangling of the underlying mechanisms and novel treatment targets.


Scatterplots depicting different associations of pancreatic fat percentage with cognitive functioning in males (blue) and females (purple). (CREDIT: journal Obesity)


  • Obesity is a risk factor for lower cognitive functioning and higher dementia risk, with different associations between sexes.

  • Obesity is usually measured by BMI, which poorly represents body fat distribution and does not necessarily account for sex differences.


 
 

What did this study discover?


  • High BMI was associated with high hepatic and pancreatic fat percentage, but not with visceral adipose tissue (VAT) percentage. In females only, high BMI was associated with high subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT) percentage.


Scatterplots depicting different associations of VAT and SAT percentage with SFG volume in males (blue) and females (purple). (CREDIT: journal Obesity)


  • Among middle-aged males at high AD risk, higher pancreatic fat percentage was associated with lower cognitive function and inferior frontal gyrus volume.

  • VAT percentage and SAT percentage were inversely associated with middle frontal and superior frontal gyrus volumes in males and females.


 
 

How might these results change the direction of research or the focus of clinical practice?


  • Abdominal fat depots, rather than BMI, will be assessed as a risk factor for lower cognitive functioning and higher dementia risk.

  • Because—to our knowledge—we are the first to do so, more research needs to be done regarding the association of pancreatic fat percentage, cognitive functioning, and brain volumes.

  • Future investigation of the underlying mechanisms that may explain the observed associations may lead to sex-specific interventions for the promotion of brain health.






For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


 

Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


 
 

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