College of Liberal Arts

The Skinny on Memory Loss

Step off the scale and let’s have a talk. You’re 30 pounds overweight and at risk for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, certain types of cancer and coronary heart disease.

More than 30 percent of Americans who are obese have likely endured a similarly uncomfortable conversation with their doctors during a routine checkup. Many are probably already familiar with the staggering list of diseases caused by their expanding waistlines but still can’t bring themselves to change their couch potato ways.

Andreana Haley

But what if dementia, a terminal disease that gradually erodes the powers of the mind, was also added to the list?

Findings from a recent brain-imaging study, conducted by Andreana Haley, assistant professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, may add an extra incentive for middle-aged people to slim down. The study found impaired insulin sensitivity, often caused by obesity, may have a direct connection to midlife brain vulnerability to cognitive decline.

“Very few people think of the brain consequences of obesity and the related metabolic dysfunctions,” Haley said. “I hope our research really drives home the point that to ensure successful cognitive aging for our rapidly growing elderly population, we need to investigate the mechanisms of early brain vulnerability.”

In search of early signs of brain vulnerability in middle-aged people, ages 40 to 60, Haley and her team of researchers compared brain response to a cognitive task among obese, overweight and normal-weight participants. Participants performed equally well on the tasks, which included exercises like remembering and manipulating numbers in short-term memory. However, obese and overweight individuals displayed a slower brain response in the inferior parietal lobe, a region in the brain that’s critical for planning and memory.

The researchers found the impaired brain activity may be a result of low insulin sensitivity, which causes the body to break down glucose less efficiently and derails blood oxygen flow to various regions of the body, including the brain.

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