Sunday, 28 February 2016

Weight Gain and Memory Problems - A Possible Connection

A Potentially Important Discovery

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found evidence suggesting that there is a link between being overweight and having poor memory. It's already known that being overweight or obese increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease and some types of cancer. The new research found that individuals with a higher BMI had poorer episodic memory. Episodic memory is defined as the ability to remember events in our lives.

Keeping track of body mass is important for maintaining health.
Franck Mahon, via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

What is BMI?


According to a press release from the University of Cambridge, the study linking weight gain to memory problems involved 50 adults aged from 18 to 35. The BMI or body mass index of each participant in the study was measured. BMI is a calculation based on a subject's height and weight. It's not a perfect indication of being overweight, since some people may be heavier than others
of the same height due to the possession of more muscle instead of more fat. BMI is a useful indicator of potential health problems for most people, though.

There are online sites that calculate a person's BMI from the data that's entered. If you do a search for the NIH BMI calculator you'll find a reliable one. NIH stands for the National Institutes of Health, which is a government organization in the United States.

In general, in an adult a BMI of less than 18.5 indicates that a person is underweight. A number between 18.5 and 24.9 indicates normal weight, a number between 25 and 29.9 indicates that a person is overweight and a number of 30 or greater indicates obesity.

Regular and moderate exercise is very useful for maintaining a healthy weight.
Photo by Ha'anala 76 via publicdomainpictures.net

The Experiment

The participants in the memory experiment were asked to "hide" items in a complex scene on a computer screen. They then had to recall which items they hid, when they hid them and where they put them. The researchers found that the people with high BMI had a poorer ability to memorize.


Previous studies have shown a link between being significantly overweight and dysfunction in two parts of the brain. One of these areas is the frontal lobe of the cerebrum, which is involved in problem solving and decision making. The other is the hippocampus, which is involved in memory. The new discovery could be related to this information.


The location of the hippocampus
Photo by OpenStax College, CC BY 3.0 License

Interpretation

There are some precautions that need to be taken when interpreting the information gained in the new experiment. First, the 50 subjects used in the Cambridge study is a small number. The research will need to be repeated with a much larger group of people. Secondly, it's unknown if the results apply to real life situations as well as the experimental one. The result of the experiment is interesting, though, and in my opinion deserves further investigation.

According to the press release from the university, about 60% of adults in the United Kingdom are overweight or obese. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the percentage in the United States is 69%. These are shocking statistics. Being significantly overweight is a serious problem for both the individual and for society. It's a problem that we badly need to solve.

The press release describing the experiment and giving a link to the full research report is available online.