DUBLIN — Hope to hold on to a strong memory in your elder years? Do your best to maintain a healthy figure as you age. A new study finds that a larger waistline is linked to greater cognitive decline in adults over 60.

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin analyzed data on nearly 5,200 elderly Irish adults who participated in a national study that examined various health and lifestyle factors. The authors ultimately found that one’s waist-to-hip ratio may represent their level of cognitive function. That is, the more belly fat an individual has, the more likely they’ll show some form of cognitive impairment — such as worsened memory, poor judgment, trouble thinking — once they hit their 60s. Research has shown that overweight people perform worse on memory and visuospatial tests, but few studies had made the same connection among older adults, particularly using such a large sample group.

“While we have known for some time that obesity is associated with negative health consequences our study adds to emerging evidence suggesting that obesity and where we deposit our excess weight could influence our brain health,” says study senior author Conal Cunningham, a clinical associate professor in medical gerontology at the school, in a statement. “This has significant public health implications.”

The authors believe the cognitive decline is the result of an increased secretion of inflammatory markers by belly fat, which has been linked to a higher risk of impaired cognition. They say, however, that having a high body mass index (BMI) doesn’t necessarily mean a person is more likely to have a poorer memory because the figure doesn’t differentiate between fat and muscle.

The study was of particular interest to scientists in Dublin because only 16% of men and 26% of women over 50 in Ireland have a normal BMI. In fact, more than half of the segment is considered obese.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is common ailment that occurs with aging, and causes people to have noticeable trouble with executive functions, but is not nearly as serious as dementia, in which patients often struggle with simple everyday tasks. Still, it’s considered an “intermediate stage” between normal cognitive decline and dementia, and may very well eventually lead to the more debilitating conditions. A recent guideline authored by a top Mayo Clinic researcher found exercising twice a week helped prevent the development of MCI.

Still, the number of people who develop dementia continues to grow at an alarming rate. Researchers warn by 2040, more than 81 million people around the world will suffer from dementia, compared to just 24.3 million in 2001.

The full study was published July 30, 2018 in the British Journal of Nutrition.

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