Many of us boomer women are aware that carrying around excess weight puts us at increased risk for diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, joint damage and falls. And these risks may be enough motivation for us to manage our weight through healthy eating and exercising.
But recent findings have provided even more motivation to avoid excess weight. Excess weight in our 60s is associated with, funnily enough, thinner brains in our 70s and beyond! Thinner brain tissue can contribute to reduced cognitive abilities, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s Disease.
In addition to this, where we carry our excess weight may be more important than the amount of weight itself in determining how quickly our brains age beyond our chronological years.
Having a bigger waistline – the result of belly fat – coupled with a higher body mass index (BMI) in our 60s could speed up our brain’s aging by 10 years or more. Thus, if you’re a 70-year-old woman with a larger-than-healthy waist size, and you’re overweight, you could have the brain of an 80-year-old.
This link between waist size, BMI, and brain aging was more pronounced in those under 65. All this reinforces the idea that the sooner we get a handle on our weight, the better we will be at protecting our memory and cognitive skills as we get older.
The idea of looking at your waist rather than just the number on the scale is also supported by the National Institutes of Health, which has reported an association between “central obesity” and cognitive decline and even dementia later in life.
BMI vs. WHR and Their Connection to Brain Disease
BMI is not a very reliable measure of obesity – especially as we get older – nor a good indicator of possible cognitive decline. A much better yardstick (no pun intended) would be a measurement known as the waist-to-hip-ratio (WHR).
Calculating your WHR is very easy. Just divide the measurement of the smallest part of your waist by the measurement of the largest part of your hips. For women, if our WHR is greater than 0.85 it is entirely possible that we could have “central obesity” while having a perfectly healthy BMI or weight.
If you’re wondering how your BMI and WHR numbers translate into your risk for developing dementia, they are fairly straightforward: if you have both high BMI and WHR numbers, your risk of developing dementia is about 3.5 times greater than that of a woman whose BMI and WHR are in the healthy range.
If your BMI is good, but your WHR is high, you’re still at risk of developing dementia that is twice than that if they were both in the healthy range.
Obesity’s Impact on Brain Health Doesn’t Stop with Cognitive Decline
Still not convinced about the advantages of maintaining a healthy weight to your cognitive functioning and memory? Well, it turns out that obesity can also impact your brain in other ways you may not have even thought of.
For example, your brain plays a key role in making sure that you can hold on to your cell phone, coffee cup, or even your fork when you pick them up.
And while dropping your coffee cup may be inconvenient, not being able to open your medicine bottle or hold on to a stair’s bannister could pose a serious health risk.
Being obese requires us to expend more “mental energy” to walk, which can tire us more quickly and increase the chances of a tumble. To add insult to injury, if you’re stressed, this “obesity effect” can be magnified, creating a vicious cycle.
From a mental health/emotional perspective, the “pleasure” areas of women’s brains are activated less if we are obese. One thing that does trigger that area is sugar, so if you’re obese, you have a higher risk of overeating in an attempt to basically feel good.
Being obese has also been shown to increase our risk for depression, which itself has been linked to contributing to obesity (another vicious cycle you want to try and avoid).
It Is Possible to Achieve and Maintain a Healthy Weight
A combination of lifestyle changes along with some simple tweaks to your diet can help you lose weight and keep it off.
One key lifestyle change is to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting and increase the amount you spend moving. The best thing is to do something you enjoy – walking, riding a bike, playing a sport, taking a dance class – and stick with it.
Finally, be sure that you are giving your brain what it needs: brain food! As women, we may need more nutrients in our diets to support cognitive health and promote positive emotional well-being, according to research conducted by Binghamton University. (Interestingly enough, the study suggests that the same may not be true for men.)
Until now, there was little known about the role diet plays as it pertains to gender-specific psychological health. But we now know that structural differences in the male and female brain may require different amounts of nutrients to sustain optimal cognitive functioning.
To that end, our brains function best when we are fueling it with high-quality foods that are hearty in nutrients like vitamins and minerals. These nutrients help protect the brain from oxidative stress, which is the “waste” produced when the body uses oxygen.
And women may need a larger spectrum of nutrients to support mood, compared to men. The general rule of thumb is to reach for foods that grow from the ground, on vines, or from bushes or trees.
If you follow any special kind of diet to help your brain stay healthy, which one do you follow? What do you do to maintain your weight? If you recently started a diet or exercise program to help your memory and cognitive abilities, are you noticing any differences? Did you talk with your doctor first? Please join the conversation.
Joy Stephenson-Laws is the founder of Proactive Health Labs, a national non-profit health information company that provides education and tools needed to achieve optimal health. Her most recent book is Minerals – The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy, available through Amazon, iTunes and bookstores.