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More Research Links Obesity with Dementia

Modern science is confirming the ancient maxim, “mens sana in corpore sano” — a sound mind in a sound body. Two new studies, both published in the journalNeurology, offer yet more evidence that obesity accelerates brain aging, while fitness helps to maintain mental acuity into old age.

In one study, Scottish researchers reviewed data for 460 participants, taken at age 11, then again at 79, to see how cognitive performance stacked up against physical prowess (e.g., grip strength, walking speed, lung function). The results suggest that trading in your remote control for a pedometer could help protect you against age-related brain decline. Previous studies indicate that the cerebral benefits of exercise aren’t limited to preserved mental function late in life, but also yield more immediate results in terms of academic test scores and job performance.

French researchers also weighed in recently with a five-year study of 2,223 participants linking higher Body Mass Indices (BMIs) with lower scores on cognitive tests. What’s more, the heavier test subjects were at the beginning of the study, the greater their cognitive decline at the end of the study. In other words: The longer you put off getting in shape, the more likely those extra pounds will drag down your IQ. Indeed, another 2005 study published in the British Medical Journal found that obese people had a 74% increased risk of dementia, while the overweight had a 35% increased risk.

Why might this be? Neuroscientists believe the same lifestyle choices that damage the heart may impede mental functioning, resulting in minute blockages of blood to the brain. The good news is that those who take action to reduce their risk factors — by losing excess weight, adopting a regular exercise regimen, reducing saturated fat intake and eating more fruit and vegetables — have far more control over their long-term intellectual fortunes than previously believed.

Bonus: Exercise to your favorite tunes and you may reap even greater mental benefits than if you exercise without music.

Published April 1, 2007

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