Gluttony’s Second Act

Obesity can be said to be the leading cause of death in North America.

It accounts for about 300,000 deaths a year in the U.S. Most of the time, it strikes by contributing in the direct cause of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, liver problems, and a lot more (Of course this can be debated, but to let’s face it, the counter-argument gets pretty thin). However this is not the whole story, it actually gets much worse.

According to a new study conducted at UCLA, Obesity seems to correlate with smaller and decreasing brain sizes. Quoting directly from Dr. Paul Thompson (PI of the study, and author of the paper published in Human Brain Mapping) – “The brains of obese people looked 16 years older than their healthy counterparts while overweight people looked 8 years older”

This has important implications. Obesity could be contributing to the acceleration of aging, and also the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Although naturally we lose brain tissue overtime (the current theory is that at birth we have an over abundance of neurons, and over time the less efficient one dies out; until only a certain age, then we simply just start losing); However this study has indicated that being obese you dramatically increase the chance of developing a degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s. If causation can be established, obesity can potentially cause other diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease (by chance – the degeneration of dopaminergic neurons).

More specifically the study indicates that overweight subjects (BMI in the range of 25 to 30) have lower brain volumes than those who have normal BMI in the basal ganglia, corona radita, and the parietal lobe. In addition, the clinical obese subjects (BMI higher than 30) have lower brain volume in the Hippocampus, frontal lobes, anterior cingulate gyrus. The finding for obese patients have a much more serious consequence, since the part of the brain affected; the frontal lobe and anterior cingulate gryus are involved in higher cognitive function such as reasoning, decision making, planning, etc (so called executive functions).The hippocampus is involved in memory functions, which again is one of the pathological sites of Alzheimer’s disease.

obesity-brain

Source: Paul M. Thompson et al (2009): Brain Structure and Obesity. Human Brain Mapping

Quickly obesity seems to become a downward, never ending spiral: poor dieting -> obesity -> poorer reasoning, decisions making, planning (due to degeneration in specialized brain areas) -> fail to realize the danger of obesity, and lack of plans to resolve the crisis – > increase in severity of obesity -> repeat. At the end of the day, it seems that obesity will disrupt and degrade almost every system in the human body; the heart, liver, and now even the brain.

The current statistics on obesity is even more alarming; according to the National Institute of Health “about two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese” or 133.6 million (that is 66% of the total American Population). The World Health Organization estimates by 2015, there will be 2.3 billion overweight adults and 700 million obese. Forget SARS and H1N1 flu, if nothing is done to treat the epidemic of obesity, we will soon face the most serious health care crisis since the bubonic plague.

For more detailed information on the study, you can read the research paper at:

http://www.loni.ucla.edu/~thompson/ObesityBrain2009.pdf

Statistics on Obesity can be found at:

http://win.niddk.nih.gov/statistics/

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7151813.stm

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