Obesity continues to be a growing worldwide public health problem, with up to 1.9 billion adults globally considered to be overweight or obese. And it’s not just obesity that’s the issue — it’s all of the chronic diseases it’s linked to, including type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
In a new study, researchers at Concordia University argued that obesity should be considered premature aging because of its strong association to chronic health issues that typically appear in old age, like weaker immune systems, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.
“We are trying to comprehensively make the argument that obesity parallels aging,” Sylvia Santosa, an associate professor of health, kinesiology and applied physiology at Concordia University, said in a news release.
In the study, the researchers examined over 200 papers that reported the effects of obesity on every part of the body, all the way down to the cellular level. They concluded that the health impact of obesity is so vast that it mirrors that of aging: complete with impaired genomes and mitochondrial function, a weaker immune system and chronic inflammation.
Obesity even has an effect all the way down to the DNA level, harming mitochondrial DNA integrity and telomeres, which are associated with life expectancy and aging.
It’s also damaging to autophagy, the body’s system of clearing out harmful elements, which plays a role in preventing neurodegenerative diseases. When autophagy is impaired, it increases someone’s risk of developing dementia.
“I ask people to list as many comorbidities of obesity as they can,” Santosa said in the news release. “Then I ask how many of those comorbidities are associated with aging. Most people will say, all of them. There is certainly something that is happening in obesity that is accelerating our aging process.”
Obesity and Alzheimer’s
Past research has found a link between obesity (and obesity-related health issues) and Alzheimer’s. One recent study found that being obese in middle age raises a person’s risk of developing dementia. Other studies have examined how a larger waist size, or high blood pressure, can also contribute to cognitive decline and dementia.
In fact, there’s an entire area of research devoted to a type of dementia that’s linked to cardiovascular problems. Vascular dementia is caused by an impairment in the circulatory system, leading to blood vessels in the brain stiffening or being damaged. This leads to reduced blood flow to the brain, which can result in cell death and neurodegeneration.
The ways in which obesity is linked to Alzheimer’s are many and varied — and researchers are still exploring all the complex ways weight, heart health and physical inactivity impact the brain. One thing many experts do agree on, however, is that exercise and diet can have a a significant effect on brain health — and these lifestyle changes may prevent dementia, or at least slow its progression.