Fat on the Hips May Diminish Mental Performance

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Abdominal fat, commonly known as having an “apple” shape, is associated with many health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. But pear-shaped women should still find ways to bring their body fat back to normal. Fat deposited in the hips and thighs may diminish mental performance.

Dr. Diana Kerwin MD, of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, and colleagues analyzed data collected from more than 8700 women, aged 65-79 years. The study participants were part of the Women’s Health Initiative trial from 40 medical centers across the country. Each woman was administered a test of memory and reasoning known as the Modified Mini-Mental State Examination, or 3MSE.

The team of researchers found that for every one point increase in BMI, participants 3MSE score dropped by roughly a point. Overall, the scores for all women were within the normal range, but slim to normal-shaped women outperformed overweight and obese women in study.

But among the apple-shapes, the heavier they were, the higher their mental acuity score, although the difference was only about 2 points out of 100 possible - so no woman should strive to gain weight just to increase memory, says Kerwin.

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"We can't change where your fat is located, but having less of it is better,” she said.

Primarily, genetics dictates where people accumulate body fat. How memory and reasoning correlates with body fat storage is unknown and surprising to many health experts, but likely related to the type of fat stored in those areas.

“Apples were better? That is surprising,” says geriatrician John Morley of the Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “It’s very difficult to explain,” he says, because based on blood levels of triglycerides, or fats, “the higher levels (which you get in the apple, not in the pear) interfere with memory.” On the other hand, he notes, “fat produces leptin [a hormone that plays a role in regulating fat storage]. And we’ve shown that leptin increases memory. It’s really the fat around the stomach that is a leptin producer.”

Estrogen may also play a role. In postmenopausal women, abdominal fat still produces small amounts of estrogen, which may have a protective effect on the brain, preserving cognitive function.

"We need to find out if one kind of fat is more detrimental than the other, and how it affects brain function," said Kerwin. "The fat may contribute to the formation of plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease or a restricted blood flow to the brain."

The study published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Geriatric Society

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