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Study examines link between abdominal fat and Alzheimer's

October 11, 2013

Although there is still quite a bit the medical community doesn't know about Alzheimer's disease and dementia, it's becoming increasingly clear that certain lifestyle choices can have a significant impact on mental health later in life. A new study from Chicago's Rush University Medical Center found that older adults who have high levels of abdominal fat are about 3.6 times more likely to develop Alzheimer's or another form of dementia compared to individuals with lean waistlines, according to findings published in the journal Cell Reports.

Striking similarities
Researchers say that the relationship can be traced back to one protein in particular that is associated with both memory and metabolism. This protein, known as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha, is predominantly located in the liver, where much of the body's fat is metabolized. However, researchers found that in adults with higher levels of abdominal fat, there is less of the protein, and because it is also located in the hippocampus, adults may encounter memory problems as well. 

"We need to better understand how fat is connected to memory and learning so that we can develop [an] effective approach to protect memory and learning," said Dr. Kalipada Pahan, a professor of neurology at Rush University Medical Center. 

Supports previous findings
This is not the first time scientists have discovered a potential link between physical and mental health. Previous studies have suggested that what you eat can play a significant role in cognitive function later in life. Some of the most compelling evidence comes from a 2011 study out of Kyushu University in Japan. There, scientists found a strong link between high levels of cholesterol and dementia. Specifically, about 86 percent of study participants with high cholesterol had brain plaques, while only 62 percent of people with normal cholesterol levels did. 

What to do?
Given the considerable evidence suggesting diet and lifestyle choices can play a role in the development of Alzheimer's, it's necessary to recognize the importance of diet in healthy aging. According to the Alzheimer's Association, it's especially important to cut down on foods that are high in saturated fat and sugars, such as sweetened baked goods, fatty meats and butter. Meanwhile, a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy can cut the risk of cognitive issues.