Childhood Obesity and Intelligence

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Abundant evidence has shown that the emotions affect the weight, and the weight in turn affects the emotions, in a million different life scenarios. The possible variations on vicious cycles and vicious circles are dizzying. Now we must brace ourselves for more bad news. Obesity affects not only the emotions, but the thinking parts of the brain.

Actually, this is not a new discovery. At the New York University School of Medicine, Dr. Antonio Convit, who is a professor of both psychiatry and medicine, and his team have been thinking about it for a long time. They noticed that as childhood obesity rises, so does metabolic syndrome (MetS).

Already up and running for four years now is the BODY Project, designed to prevent diabetes. The program works with schools and parents to not just weigh kids, but to further assess risk by taking their blood pressures and testing for insulin resistance and determining their cholesterol levels — things which many pediatricians do not routinely do.

A Science Codex article elaborates on metabolic syndrome:

… [A] constellation of three or more of five defined health problems, including abdominal obesity, low HDL (good cholesterol), high triglycerides, high blood pressure and pre-diabetic insulin resistance [...] have shown previously that metabolic syndrome has been linked to neurocognitive impairments in adults, but this association was generally thought to be a long-term effect of poor metabolism.

The team had also noticed before that metabolic syndrome correlates with kids who have learning difficulties, but this study really pinned it down. They’re talking about actual brain impairment and cognitive disorders that prevent kids from doing well in school. Dr. Convit, who is also a member of the Nathan Kline Research Institute, says that kids with MetS don’t spell or read as well. They can’t do math as well either, and they lack both attention span and mental flexibility.

The writer says:

They also showed differences in brain structure and volume, presenting with smaller hippocampal volumes — involved in the learning and recall of new information, increased brain cerebrospinal fluid and reductions of microstructural integrity in major white matter tracts in the brain. The more MetS-characterizing health problems the participants had, the more profound the effect across the board.

Dr. Convit describes a possible case of unintended consequences in education policy. In an attempt to improve academic test scores, schools have reduced physical education programs, the exact wrong thing to do if we want kids to be healthy enough to think well and learn. The really scary part is, nobody knows yet if any of this is reversible. If an obese teenager turns her or his life around and becomes very healthy, can there be healing of whatever went wrong in the brain?

That study concerned a relatively small number of teenagers. But here’s one that included 6,000 children who were followed from kindergarten through 5th grade. University of Missouri researchers extracted information from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort which showed that, in addition to being more sad and lonely and anxious than their normal-weight classmates, the obese kids did worse in math.

Another study, a nice summary of which is presented by The Huffington Post, included more than 6,000 adults and showed that obesity and metabolic syndrome can lead to what used to be called premature senility:

They found that the people who were obese and had the metabolic abnormalities experienced a faster rate of mental decline of 22.5 percent over the 10-year period, compared with the healthy, normal weight study participants… [P]eople who are obese and have hypertension, low ‘good’ cholesterol levels, high triglycerides or high blood sugar (what are known as ‘metabolic abnormalities’) are more likely to experience cognitive decline at a faster rate than people without any of these conditions.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Obesity and metabolic syndrome associated with impaired brain function in adolescents,” Science Codex, 09/03/2012
Source: “Childhood Obesity Affects Math Performance,” ABC News, 06/04/12
Source: “Obesity Could Speed Up Mental Decline: Study,” The Huffington Post, 08/28/12
Image by swilk0.

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