How Extra Weight Impacts Your Brain as You Age

By Denise Maher |

Carrying extra pounds doesn't just stress your heart. It can interfere with your cognitive abilities too. Here's what seniors need to know.

group of older adults in a dance exercise class for a story on weight and brain health

It's well known that weighing too much isn't great for your cardiovascular health. Excess pounds increase the likelihood of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other heart disease risk factors. You may be surprised to learn that excess weight affects your brain health too - playing a role in premature brain aging and cognitive problems.

"We think of cholesterol levels, diabetes and hypertension as being either risk or protective factors for heart disease," says Hannah Ellen Gardener, Sc.D. She is an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "But these are important risk factors that impact brain health, as well - specifically, risk for poor cognitive health, especially in older adults."

Unfortunately, older adults are more likely to see the numbers on the scale go up — especially after age 50 when a slower metabolism caused by muscle loss and other changes makes it harder to keep extra pounds off.

Postmenopausal women may find that weight clings to their bellies, and they may not see the same results from working out as they did when they were younger, adds Lydia C. Alexander, M.D. She is an internist and president elect of the Obesity Medicine Association. 

Exactly how does extra body weight harm your cognitive abilities? While researchers still have a lot to learn, they also have a lot of theories about the connection between brain health and body weight. Here's what we know.

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The Brain Gets Less Blood and Nourishment

The brain needs a consistent blood supply, so it has enough oxygen and nutrients to function properly. A study published in Neurobiology of Aging linked being obese or overweight in older adulthood with reduced cerebral blood flow. That is known to contribute to vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The brain’s blood supply can also suffer when weight gain leads to obstructive sleep apnea. That is an obesity-related disorder where breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. Without treatment, women with sleep apnea experience less REM sleep and less deep sleep, which also impairs cognitive function, according to Dr. Alexander.

Extra Weight Can Lead to Inflammation

Obesity is a disease that can lead to chronic low-grade inflammation, which can cause organ damage. According to the National Institute on Aging, preliminary studies show that brain inflammation may be an important factor in the cognitive loss that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

The Brain Ages and May Shrink Faster

Gardener says higher body weight may shrink areas of the brain that impact memory, thinking, processing speed, language, completing tasks and making decisions. One study looked at cognitively healthy adults aged 60 to 79 to see which factors most contributed to aging brain matter. The conclusion? High body fat, excess belly fat and systemic inflammation may reduce brain volume and potentially executive functioning too, which includes working memory and flexible thinking.

Your Mental Health Becomes Vulnerable 

Research shows that excess weight is linked to a higher risk for depression and anxiety. And a study in Translational Psychiatry found that obesity often precedes severe mental-health disorders.

Another analysis found that there is a chicken-and-egg relationship between depression and obesity - it's tough to know which issue came first. The study authors recommended that healthcare providers monitor mood in patients with overweight or obesity.

How Losing Weight Can Help Your Brain

Weighing less won’t solve brain problems in everyone, but physical activity is a strong tool to combat cognitive decline. Exercise — and eating right — triggers many positive effects on the brain and on weight loss.

To tip the scales in your favor, start by talking to your health care provider. Together, you can come up with a weight loss plan that considers your lifestyle and health needs. These simple strategies can also help:

Recommended reading: Weight Loss Basics for Older Adults

Move More Throughout the Day

Experts say that short stints of low impact activities, such as gardening, housecleaning or walking the dog, help maintain better brain blood flow. And they burn calories too.

"Short bouts of exercise are beneficial for your health and increase neuron connections in the brain," says Dr. Alexander. "You can make a real difference by doing something you enjoy."

Fitness experts call these “movement snacks.” You can learn more about them here.

Build More Muscle

Besides supporting weight loss, strength training also helps power up your brain. A study in GeroScience suggests that resistance training triggers a helpful neurological response that may prevent brain tissue damage. Sharpen your brain — and build more muscle strength — by using resistance bands, free weights, weight-training machines or even your own body weight.

Recommended FREE SilverSneakers On-Demand Class: Bodyweight Strength Training for Seniors

Try Tai Chi or Dance Classes

Tai chi, a senior-friendly practice that involves a series of slow, gentle movements combined with controlled breathing, is especially beneficial for those with mild cognitive impairment. A study published in Frontiers In Neuroscience suggests that tai chi boosts connectivity between brain regions and increases brain volume.

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Dancing is good for the brain, too. It can boost cognitive function, memory, executive function, attention, language, and mental health in people with mild cognitive impairment, according to a review published in BMC Geriatrics.

Here’s an 8-minute low-impact dance workout that you can try right now.

Feed Your Brain

Gardener has co-authored studies on the potential brain benefits of the Mediterranean diet, including data that suggests this healthy eating style may help protect against Parkinson's disease. And it can help you shed unwanted pounds too.

"A healthy diet allows for nerves to be regenerated and neurotransmitters to be replaced," says Nancy Farrell Allen, M.S., R.D.N. She is a spokesperson for the Academy of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "It is never too late to improve eating behaviors to protect your brain."

Farrell Allen recommends eating foods found on a Mediterranean diet menu. Those high in omega-3s, like salmon, walnuts, and flaxseeds, have an anti-inflammatory effect, as do colorful fruits and veggies that are loaded with brain-boosting antioxidants and polyphenols.

Recommended reading: What Is the Mediterranean Diet: The SilverSneakers Guide

See our sources:
Obesity and brain age: Neurobiology of Aging
Obesity and brain matter volume: Frontiers in Neuroscience Aging
Extra weight and cerebral blood flow: Neurobiology of Aging
Strength gains and brain health in older adults: GeoScience
Tai Chi for short-term cognitive function improvement: Clinical Interventions in Aging
Obesity and inflammation: Cureus
Inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease: National Institute on Aging
Tai chi for health of older adults: American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine
Tai Chi and cognitive impairment: Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience
Dance therapy and cognitive health: BMC Geriatrics
Mediterranean diet, preventing neurodegenerative diseases: Current Nutrition Reports

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