Irish scientists discover link between excessive belly fat and dementia

More than half of over 50s are centrally obese. Stock Image

Kirsty Blake Knox

Excessive belly fat has been linked to an increased likelihood of cognitive impairment and dementia.

A groundbreaking study of 5,000 Irish individuals has found the measure of belly fat in adults over the age of 60 is linked with cognitive impairment.

These findings are cause for concern as there is a high prevalence of obesity in Ireland's older population.

More than half of the over-50s population can be classified as being centrally obese - when there is excessive abdominal fat around the stomach and abdomen.

According to the report, conducted using data from the Trinity Ulster Department of Agriculture (TUDA) ageing cohort, only 16pc of men and 26pc of women reported to have a BMI (body mass index) within the "normal" range.

A higher waist:hip ratio was associated with reduced cognitive function.

The global prevalence of dementia is predicted to increase from 24.3 million in 2001 to 81.1 million by 2040.

Belly fat has a negative impact on cognitive function because it increases the secretion of inflammatory markers, which are associated with a higher risk.

Speaking about the findings, clinical associate professor in medical gerontology at Trinity Conal Cunningham said people have known for some time obesity is associated with negative health consequences.

He said that this new study "adds to emerging evidence suggesting that obesity and where we deposit our excess weight could influence our brain health.

"This has significant public health implications."

Researchers argue that by reducing exposure to 'obesogenic risk factors' - such as low physical activity, high screen time, low fruit and vegetable intake, high soft drink consumption, and high snack intake - it could be possible to offer a cost-effective public health strategy for the prevention of cognitive decline.

The findings also referred to previous studies that found people who are overweight do not perform as well on tests of memory and visuospatial ability compared to those who are not overweight.

Eamon Laird, research fellow with the Centre for Medical Gerontology, Trinity, said people often think fading memory is part of old age.

"Now it may be possible to do something to reduce the chances of that happening.

"If people maintain high fitness levels into older age, it could reduce the odds of negatively impairing your cerebral health," he said.

The study was led by St James's Hospital Dublin in collaboration with Trinity College Dublin and co-investigators from the Nutrition Innovation Centre for Food and Health (NICHE) at Ulster University, Coleraine.