HomeLifestyleHealth & FitnessYour immune system may explain why body fat is bad for thinking

Your immune system may explain why body fat is bad for thinking

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Changes in parts of the immune system may be to blame for how flexible our thinking becomes as we age, with less muscle and more body fat.

We may become less flexible in our thinking as we get older because we lose muscle and gain fat and changes in parts of the immune system may be to blame.

These findings could lead to new treatments that help aging persons with obesity, sedentary lifestyles, or muscle loss that occurs naturally with age preserve mental flexibility.

The research looked at data from over 4,000 middle-aged to older UK Biobank participants, both men and women, and was conducted by Auriel Willette, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, and Brandon Klinedinst, a Ph.D. student in neuroscience. Over the course of six years, the researchers looked at how direct measurements of lean muscle mass, abdominal fat, and subcutaneous fat were associated with changes in fluid intelligence.

Willette and Klinedinst showed that adults in their 40s and 50s who had more fat in their midsection had lower fluid intelligence as they aged. Muscle mass, on the other hand, proved to be a protective factor. Even after accounting for chronological age, degree of education, and socioeconomic status, these associations remained unchanged.

“Chronological age doesn’t seem to be a factor in fluid intelligence decreasing over time,” said Willette. “It appears to be biological age, which here is the amount of fat and muscle.”

When people reach middle age, they begin to accumulate fat and lose lean muscle, a process that continues as they age. Implementing exercise regimens to keep lean muscle becomes increasingly vital to overcoming this. According to Klinedinst, middle-aged women, who naturally have less muscle mass than males, need to exercise, particularly resistance training.

Changes in immune system activity were also investigated to see whether they may explain correlations between fat or muscle and fluid intelligence. Previous research has found that patients with a higher BMI have more immune system activity in their blood, which activates the immune system in the brain and produces cognition issues. Because BMI only considers total body mass, it’s unclear if fat, muscle, or both help to kick-start the immune system.

Changes in two types of white blood cells, lymphocytes and eosinophils, were shown to explain the entire association between increased abdominal fat and worse fluid intelligence in women in this study. Basophils, a separate type of white blood cell, explained nearly half of the fat-fluid intelligence link in men. The immune system does not appear to have a function in the protection of muscle mass.

While the study discovered a link between body fat and lower fluid intelligence, it is unclear whether this could raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease at this time.

“Further studies would be needed to see if people with less muscle mass and more fat mass are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, and what the role of the immune system is,” Klinedinst added.

“If you eat alright and do at least brisk walking some of the time, it might help you with mentally staying quick on your feet,” Willette added.

Source: 10.1016/j.bbi.2019.09.008

Image Credit: Getty

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