Being overweight at midlife may lead to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s according to a new study. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health investigated and reported Tuesday (September 1, 2015) that being overweight or obese at age 50 may influence not just whether a person goes on to develop Alzheimer's disease, but when. Among those who eventually developed memory issues, more midlife pounds meant an earlier onset of disease.
Additional research will be required to prove the link, however researchers note this is another reason to watch your weight. Those who suffer from Alzheimer's require supervisory care in a Long Term Health Care setting. This type of care places a large burden on loved ones and is not paid for by health insurance or Medicare. The financial costs require some families to spend down life savings.
“Maintaining a healthy BMI at midlife is likely to have long-lasting protective effects,” said Dr. Madhav Thambisetty of NIH’s National Institute on Aging, who led the study reported in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
About 5 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s, a number expected to more than double by 2050 as the population ages. Barring a medical breakthrough, the risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementias will continue to impact families and create huge financial burdens on loved ones as well as taxpayers. Taxpayers many times end up paying for care once a person spends down their own assets. With the cost of care being high, the spend down can happen quick.
Alzheimer’s starts quietly ravaging the brain more than a decade before symptoms appear. With a cure way down the road, researchers are exploring ways to at least delay the disease, and lifestyle changes are among the possible options available.
Alzheimer’s is especially a big issue for women in general. The Alzheimer’s Association says a 65-year-old American woman has a 1 in 6 chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. That does not count other type of memory loss such as simple dementia that impacts people, nor does it count early onset Alzheimer’s which impacts younger people.
Women in their 60s are also twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than breast cancer, according to the report — “2014 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures” — from the Alzheimer’s Association.
To explore obesity’s effects, Thambisetty’s team turned to the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, one of the longest-running projects to track what happens to healthy people as they get older. They checked the records of nearly 1,400 participants who had undergone regular cognitive testing every year or two for about 14 years.
The researchers checked how much those Alzheimer’s patients weighed when they were 50 and still cognitively healthy. They tracked BMI, or body mass index, a measure of weight to height. Every step up on the BMI chart predicted that when Alzheimer’s eventually struck, it would be 6 ½ months sooner.
In other words, among this group of Alzheimer’s patients, someone who had been obese - a BMI of 30 - during middle age on average had their dementia strike about a year earlier than someone whose midlife BMI was 28, in the overweight range, Thambisetty explained.
The threshold for being overweight is a BMI of 25.
Some of the Baltimore Longitudinal study participants underwent brain scans during life and autopsies at death. Those tests found people with higher midlife BMIs also had more of the brain-clogging hallmarks of Alzheimer's years later, even if they didn't develop dementia.
This study adds to previous research linking midlife obesity to a risk of Alzheimer's, but it's the first to also find those brain changes, a clue important to examine further, said Heather Snyder of the Alzheimer's Association, who wasn't involved in the work.
Meanwhile, the Alzheimer's group has long recommended a healthy weight: "What's good for your heart is good for your brain," Snyder noted.
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