Alzheimers, Brain Size, and Fat

Have you seen the story that older fat people have smaller brains than thinner ones, which has been previously linked with Alzheimer’s disease?

Yeah.  There may be a correlation there, yes.  Future studies may bear this out. Has a link been noticed between weight and Alzheimer’s anywhere else?

The Alzheimer’s Association does list weight as a risk factor. Sort of.  It starts with the fact that age is the greatest risk factor.  Family history and genetics are also risk factors.  Weight is lumped into “healthy aging”, including

[S]trategies for overall healthy aging may help keep the brain healthy and may even offer some protection against developing Alzheimer’s or related diseases. Try to keep your weight within recommended guidelines, avoid tobacco and excess alcohol, stay socially connected, and exercise both your body and mind.

They also recommend:

  • Improving your vascular health  by treating “high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol” .
  • Avoiding head injuries by wearing your seatbelt in cars, “fall-proofing” your home, and wearing helmets while biking, cycling, or other appropriate times.

There is plenty there that most people can do at any weight.   Given that most people can’t make big, permanent changes to their weight, I’ll be focusing on those.


Update: After posting this I checked LJ and found this topic being discussed in the Fatshionista community, complete with a link to a PDF of the actual study.  I thought this might be interesting for y’all as well. :)

20 thoughts on “Alzheimers, Brain Size, and Fat

  1. I’ve always read that you may be able to lower your risk for Alzheimer’s if you keep active physically, mentally and socially, like the quote from the Alzheimer’s Association said. But this disease doesn’t discriminate when it comes to weight and if you have a genetic predisposition to it. I worked in a nursing home for almost five years and I can tell you that people of all weights, as well as gender and ethnicity were affected.

    With all the fear over the obesity panic, the media sees anything that is correlated to fat, takes it as truth, and runs with it, even if the study itself is questionable due to the sample size and not taking into consideration other factors.

  2. I love when studies say something is “a risk”. It’s so non-committal. I risk a crash every time I get in my car. I risk getting hit every time I cross the street. I risk getting struck by lightning if I’m outside during a rainstorm. Yet, none of these things have happened yet and I must continue to do them all, sooo…. whatev folks. I’d like to see better numbers from a broader study.

  3. Everyone in my family* who had Alzheimers was rail thin, and were as physically, mentally, and socially active as they possibly could be. Focusing on preventative behaviors might make us feel like we’re taking an active role, but genetics is such a strong component with the disease that I think ultimately it’s out of our individual control.

    *I’m only related to that side of the family through adoption and am at no greater risk of the disease than the general population.

  4. Amen. Once again it is excessive fearmonging & taking another opportunity to blame everything in the world on fat. I personally have not known a lot of people who developed Alzheimer’s who were fat. Did Ronald Reagan have a small brain, are we supposed to assume? He was also very active, outdoorsy, very involved in life, & very ‘health-conscious’. Am I the only one who really picked up on the suggestion that fatter people have smaller brains than thin people, yet another attempt to say that fat people are stupid, which has been suggested many times before? And I would suggest that, most likely, the ONLY correlation between fat & Alzheimer’s is that it is a disease of aging & that most people tend to gain some weight with age, until they reach the point where they begin to shrink.

    These people have no idea what they are talking about & will do anything, SAY anything, to help pour yet more money into the coffers of the weight loss industry. I remember four or five years ago some ‘news story’ claiming that if you were fat at 70, you could suffer from dementia by the time you hit 88, which does happen to some people of ALL sizes. This story came out less than a week after they had been yammering about how it was unlikely that fat people could live to be 70, much less 88. I personally much prefer science by science to science by press release.

    My favorite writer, Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series, is 61 years old, not fat by any means, & in the early stages of early onset Alzheimers. He is hoping for research to find help soon & is writing as much as he can for as long as he can. And my older son’s best friend’s grandmother (JR’s father was adopted, so this is not in his genetic makeup), who died a couple of years ago, was a small, very thin woman all her life; she had Alzheimer’s & knew nothing & no one by the time she died at 96.

    • Am I the only one who really picked up on the suggestion that fatter people have smaller brains than thin people, yet another attempt to say that fat people are stupid, which has been suggested many times before?

      My first reaction to them saying that they’ve finally found a link between weight and brain size/function was really? It’s certainly been wildly and widely anticipated then.

      Apart from glossing over the fact that they could find any fattez who’ve managed to cling to life to the age of 70, if true, it could be any number of factors.

      Weight loss dieting conservation, causes a reduced amount of calories to go to the brain-about 25% of calorie intake is solely for the brain.

      The stress of fat hate, internalized as well as external, in itself, of being on edge trying always to deflect it, being repressed(ultra nice etc), means you often can’t relax.

      It could be a metabolic side effect and so on.

  5. Did Ronald Reagan have a small brain, are we supposed to assume?

    I’m not going there. :-P But it’s safe to say he was about as physically fit as you could be, and I don’t think he was fat for a second of his life.

    It’s disturbing to me that this study is being plastered all over the place as gospel. LOSE WEIGHT OR YOU’LL WIND UP A STUPID VEGETABLE*, NOT THAT YOU’RE SUCH A BRAINIAC NOW. Of course, they’re not actually comparing the brain health of former fat people to that of current fat people. None of these frigging “studies” ever does, and that’s the only kind of study that’s worth two shits at all, really. If weight loss qua weight loss — the thing they’re hounding us to do NOW NOW NOW — doesn’t decrease the risk of disease, and doesn’t lower all-cause mortality, then people are (again) hocking us over nothing.

    *grossly oversimplified view of Alzheimer’s deliberate, as this is the threat they’re using to scare people thin.

  6. The first thing I thought when I saw the Yahoo blurb was “I bet they didn’t control for age in that study.” You know, because aging can cause both weight gain and brain shrinkage. If one was heading a ‘study’ that was funded by groups with strong ties to the diet industry, and one’s sponsors happened to drop strong hints along the lines of “You know that obesity is unhealthy. We’d really like to see some more evidence of that. It’s for the public good, really. We’re out to fund researchers who work on projects for the public good.” …well, one could please said sponsors by loading the fat study group with older people. Ta-da! Fat people have shrunken brains! We can haz research grant now?

    • Arrrgh, I didn’t see the link to the PDF until after I wrote that. >.< Oh, for an edit button. Or even a delete button.

  7. I do see your point about Reagan, Meowser, but let’s say that he was smart enough to have a successful career as a B-movie actor, be President of SAG, then somehow get himself elected governor & President. And he was indeed very fit & never fat in his life (I spent a lot of years living with a fan of old movies & being sometimes involuntarily subjected to at least snatches of them & Mr. Reagan was always the lean, well-built, handsome leading man type).

    I also like your point about former fat people, too, since, as I recall, there has been some evidence that, among the damage done by dieting, particularly repeated dieting, is loss of brains cells. Being fat doesn’t make you stupid, but dieting could send you along that road….in more ways than one.

    And, just as a side note, my mother & grandmother were both fat, lived to be 85 & 90, & my mother’s mind was clear & sharp to the end, while my grandmother had some mild confusion at times, but didn’t suffer from any kind of dementia & certainly always knew who she was & who we were. My mother’s brother, who lived to be 94, did have Alzheimer’s, but they had different fathers, so it may have come from his father’s family, I am not sure.

  8. When I mentioned to my mother’s geriantoligist (old people doctor, is that how you spell it?) about a news story that talked about the current horrible epidemic of alzhiemers he said what a load of rubbish, what we really have is a horrible epidemic of humans living longer than ever before in history. The biggest risk factor for dementia is old age.

  9. Whoa, whoa, waaaaaaaaaait a minute here. Does this mean if I lose weight my brain will get bigger? Silly me STUDYING to complete my master’s when I could’ve just dropped 20 lbs and had the degree in the bag! Ah well, maybe I can still pop out that bestseller I’ve always dreamed of writing with my newly enlarged thin brain.

    Of course I should also ask though, if (or more like when) I gain the weight back ,will that automatically re-shrink my brain and make me stupid again?

    /end sarcastic rant. GAH. I can’t remember the last time I heard of something so idiotic and nonsensical.

  10. Susan, I like your mother’s doctor’s attitude & he is absolutely right. What we have is a horrible epidemic of people living longer than ever & more people living long enough to develop the diseases of all age & for their bodies & sometimes minds to just generally age & sort of fall apart. We also have a horrible epidemic of people who get paid to do ‘studies’ instead of having real jobs who feel the need to publish or perish & an even bigger epidemic of media who feel the need to hype & exaggerate everything & a cultural climate which seems to encourage constant attempts to scare everyone to death & convince us all we are idiots who cannot take care of ourselves & live our own lives, & Gods forbid that we should feel comfortable in our own bodies & believe we are okay as we are.

  11. It’s not just that being fat doesn’t make you stupid, it’s the obesity crisis actually can make you stupid.

    I feel like it’s helped to reduce my intelligence palably in the past because it forces you to pretend that what is blatantly evident, is somehow not so.

    It makes you tend to locate any thoughts about yourself, outside yourself, so you tend to write off your own feelings and have to go to others to find out what you are.

    If you think about it, that is the definition of stupid person, one that is used to other people knowing more than them.

    Being ‘an obese’ in the way the establishment defines it, is a state of enforced stupidity.

  12. Amen. Oh, & they did slip up more than they realized. In order to claim that ‘old fat people have smaller brains’, first they must admit that there ARE ‘old fat people’, that fat people can & do live to be old. Every time they make some idiotic pronouncement about fat people, in the process they contradict some other pronouncement they have made about us. Wasn’t one of the reasons we were supposed to be obedient little drones & diet that they were trying to tell us that if we stayed fat, we would die young? Apparently, they want it both ways…fat people die young, but fat old people have small brains & get Alzheimer’s.

  13. My father suffers from dementia, and he lives in an assisted living facility for people with dementia. The body size and shape of the residents varies greatly, but I would say that the majority are not fat, and some are very thin. Even the fattest residents don’t look all that fat to me, either.

    Also, the big concern at the facility is that the residents maintain their weight — i.e. don’t lose it. (But they do lose it, alas, as the disease progresses.)

  14. Thanks for that perspective, Katia, & the reminder that we all need to remember that there are so many much more important things than the size of people’s bodies. And, as you know, there are many good reasons NOT to lose weight &, especially as we age, holding onto the weight & trying to remain as properly nourished as we can is the priority. God, I wish that people would pull their heads out of their butts & see the truth. However, as long as there is so much money to be made from convincing people that they re defective & need to change, few people will see the truth.

    I send good thoughts & positive vibes to you & your father & to all the elderly who deal with serious illness & disability in the last years of their lives. There is a good chance that many of us will find ourselves in the same place one day.

    • Thanks, Patsy, for the kind thoughts and wishes. My father is in the last stage of his life, and part of the way we know that is because he has lost much weight in the past 6 months.

      And Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite authors, too.

  15. I live in Australia and work with a bunch of old folks who are all very healthy and don’t suffer from dementia. They vary in age form 65 to 97 and they are wonderful and I am deeply in love with each and every one of them. They also, like most random groups in the population vary from being quite slender to quite fat. Most fall somewhere in the middle. One thing that I have noticed about them is that they never, ever refuse a piece of cake or a chocolate biscuit. Every plate of snacks that goes out come back empty. They also order burgers and chips and fried battered fish for lunch and when we have a function they often ask for seconds. When I lived in Arizona I noticed that lots of the old snow birders regularly frequent the likes of Dairy Queen, Burger King etc and scarf down their share of burgers, fries and icecream. It had not apparently killed them yet either.

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