I don’t think we need to get into all of the negatives that come along with being overweight and obese. However, there seems to be a new finding that raises a concern for brain health. In fact, it’s downright scary. Being overweight has now been shown to slow down your brain and can age it by as many as ten years.
The brain is the control center for everything that we do. We need to do anything and everything we can to protect it. It’s for that reason that we wear helmets while riding a bicycle or when we are on a motorcycle. It’s the same reason racecar drivers wear them—not because it’s a fashion statement and you can put paid sponsor stickers all over it and make tons of money (but wouldn’t that be nice).
Let’s take a quick dive into the brain and what specifically this article is going to focus on in terms of the aging of an important part of the human brain.
What is white matter in the brain?
White matter is the part of the brain that connects all the grey matter together. Grey matter is a very important component of the central nervous system (CNS). It is made up of regions of the brain that control muscle movement, speech, vision, hearing, memory, emotions, self-control, and decision making.
Without the white matter in the brain, signals in the brain would become slower and our actions/reactions/response time would ultimately be delayed. An example would be someone we consider to be a “quick-thinker”. Someone who can process information very quickly and respond with minimal time between the information gathered and the response.
Many consider white matter to be the “subway” of the brain, relaying and transporting signals around the different segments of the brain at a high rate of speed. White matter is made up of millions of nerve fibers. These fibers are protected by a myelin sheath which also gives the white matter its distinctive white color. The white matter is deep inside the brain and is well protected unless there is severe trauma to the head from something such as blunt force or changes in health occur (in the case of this article, an increase in body fat outside of the healthy range). Some other things that can affect white matter are genetics, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, smoking, long-term high blood pressure, as well as chronic blood vessel inflammation.
When there are issues with white matter, transmission of signals from one part of the brain are delayed to the other areas of the brain. This slows down the processes within the brain as well as thinking in general. Should the white matter of the brain get damaged, it can cause all bodily functions to slow down or even stop working.
What are the studies saying?
Studies are now finding that people who are overweight are showing more brain health issues when compared to healthy fit individuals. When using BMI (body mass index) as a guide, researchers have found that those individuals who are over a BMI score of 25 have less white matter in their brains than those who scored under 25, according to a study involving 527 adults.
Researchers speculate that this change in white matter is due to excess fat tissue. This excess tissue is thought to produce inflammatory proteins (cytokines) that can damage the overall health of the brain.
Along the same lines as the findings with overweight individuals and aging of the brain, researchers have also mentioned that overweight individuals are at a greater risk for dementia. Dementia is described as a group of symptoms rather than an actual disease. These symptoms include memory loss, the inability to think clearly, the inability to function and complete daily tasks, speech impairment, vision and balance issues, as well as trouble eating just to name a few. Dementia is generally seen in older individuals but with the changes in white matter due to an individual having an overabundance of body fat can bring on the symptoms earlier in life.
As we age, the white matter (tissue) naturally shrinks—eventually it happens to all of us and isn’t preventable. In those that are overweight or obese, this process is sped up at a much faster rate. It’s said that an overweight or obese individual can have a similar brain to someone who is healthy but ten years older than them. Their brain is actually shrinking at a faster rate than their healthy counterpart. However, researchers believe that should those overweight and obese individuals get their body weight and health back under control, some of the negative side effects associated the changes in white matter may be reversed.
What’s the best way to prevent early aging of your brain and damaging white matter?
It’s as simple as maintaining a healthy body weight through proper exercise and nutrition. It is recommended that you strive for 30 minutes of daily exercise at least 5 days out of every week. It’s also important for you to eat a diet full of complex carbohydrates, high-quality protein, and healthy fats. If nutrition is the hardest part for you to follow and you have no idea where to start, I highly recommend you download an app called ‘MyFitnessPal’ on your smartphone. This free app makes tracking your macronutrients a breeze. You can follow a generic ratio of macros such as the 40/30/30 (carbohydrates/protein/fat) plan. This would be a great place to start if you currently aren’t following any type of nutrition plan.
Overall, exercise and nutrition needs to be a lifestyle change. If you are currently overweight or obese, getting to that point didn’t happen overnight. Likewise, when you start your journey to living a healthier lifestyle, the changes to your body and health will take time, dedication, and consistency. Don’t give up! The only thing that can stop you from your health and fitness goals is found between your ears. If you can overcome that, you can overcome anything.