Obesity: A Risk Factor for Alzheimer’s

Diet and exercise may play role in treatment, prevention


This post is part of ongoing coverage of Cleveland Clinic’s 2013 Medical Innovation Summit: Finding Balance through Innovation. Obesity, Diabetes & the Metabolic Crisis.

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Much of the current research of Alzheimer’s disease is conducted in patients who are already in cognitive decline. Also, too little research is being conducted on the long-term impact that chronic conditions like obesity might have on cognitive health.

This was the assessment of a panel of brain health experts who addressed the issue of “Diet, Obesity and Alzheimer’s Disease” at Cleveland Clinic’s Medical Innovation Summit on Oct. 15.

“Every 68 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s disease,” said Jeff Cummings, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “The current cost of Alzheimer’s treatment is $170 billion and it will be $1 trillion by 2050 if we don’t find effective treatments.”

The obesity link

Dr. Cummings says that Alzheimer’s disease has been called “type 3 diabetes” by some because of its strong link to obesity, which elevates brain proteins that are linked to the development of the disease.

He said brain imaging has proven that people with obesity have smaller brain volumes, which increases the risk for Alzheimer’s.

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“Roughly half of the risk for Alzheimer’s disease is linked to things we can’t control, like age and genetics,” he said. “But the other half are things that are at least partially in our control … you can reduce your risk with lifestyle modification,” Dr. Cummings says.

Panelist Stephen Rao, PhD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Schey Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging, uses MRI imaging to explore the link between physical activity and Alzheimer’s disease.

He asked people about their level of activity over the previous 20 years and then tested them for the genetic markers that indicate elevated risk of developing the disease.

“The people who were at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and don’t engage in physical activity were at a higher risk of developing cognitive decline over time,” Dr. Rao said. “Even if you are at risk, you can prevent cognitive decline with physical activity.”

In fact, Dr. Rao said studies show that development of Alzheimer’s disease is more strongly influenced by physical activity than by the intellectual activities that are so often encouraged among seniors.

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Impact on symptoms

Panelist John Gunstad, PhD, associate psychology professor at Kent State University, has been involved in research looking at the brains of patients before and after bariatric surgery. His initial results show improvements in cognitive function after significant weight loss.

Dr. Rao pointed to the results of one Finnish study which found that Alzheimer’s disease patients who engaged in 30 minutes of exercise three times a week experienced a slower rate of cognitive decline than those who did not.

Each of these experts agreed that much more research is needed to understand the links between obesity, diet, physical activity and other factors.

“It’s like trying to find a needle in a pile of needles,” he said. “They are all interrelated and finding one treatment is tricky.”

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