Instant Karma — Obesity and the Brain

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In discussing the co-morbidities that can accompany obesity and presage an early death, we often think far ahead. In the mind of a child or teenager, however, the long-term effects are inconsequential, because — who knows? They may not live that long, or by the time they are middle-aged, a cure might be discovered. But the side effects of obesity can be immediate, affecting young people right here, right now.

In 2012, the journal Cerebral Cortex published a report titled “The Negative Association of Childhood Obesity to Cognitive Control of Action Monitoring” which revealed that obesity may relate to a child’s decreased ability to think quickly or as well in some circumstances. Inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility are recognized to be the core cognitive processes. Success math and reading definitely requires these higher-order cognitive processes.

This study focused on action monitoring, which is a person’s ability to recognize and correct a mistake, a necessary trait if a person is to carry out goal-oriented behaviors. Leaving school aside, the ability to respond to stimuli quickly can save many situations, up to and including life-threatening ones. The authors explain how…

[…] individuals must continuously monitor their correspondence between intended and executed actions, and correct response errors during subsequent environmental interaction for the maintenance and adaptation of successful performance.

This research built on previous studies indicating that childhood obesity might be inversely associated with cognitive control, defined as “the ability to orchestrate thought and action in accord with internal goals.” But other studies seemed to go the opposite way, so empirical evidence was scarce and inconclusive.

In 2014 researchers from several universities in the United Kingdom published what was said to be “the first comprehensive study to look into the association between obesity and academics in teens.” It found that obesity is negatively related to academic achievement, which is a formal way of saying that obese teenagers get worse grades.

For unknown reasons, the harmful effect appears to be stronger on girls. MedicalNewsToday.com says:

To conduct their study, the team assessed data from nearly 6,000 children who were part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). Overall, the results revealed that girls who were obese at age 11 had lower academic achievement at ages 11, 13 and 16 years, compared with those of a healthy weight.

As with any scientific study, the researchers considered other factors that might skew the results. But even after accounting for such variables as “socio-economic status, mental health, IQ and age of onset of the menstrual cycle,” the conclusion held.

Another report in the same year showed that childhood obesity correlates with learning disorders and academic underperformance, as well as attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders. Is this merely coincidence, or could weight reduction and the healthier living that goes along with it actually alleviate those other problems?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Negative Association of Childhood Obesity to Cognitive Control of Action Monitoring,” OxfordJournals.org, 11/11/12
Source: “Teen girls: obesity linked to lower academic performance,” MedicalNewsToday.com, 03/11/14
Source: “Rules of thumb: Three simple ideas for overcoming childhood obesity,” MedicalXpress.com, 05/01/14
Photo credit: wecometolearn via Visualhunt/CC BY

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