Body Fat May Hamper Your Thinking as You Age

New study reveals link between BMI and certain type of intelligence
January 2, 2020 Updated: January 2, 2020
FONT BFONT SText size

Having less muscle and more body fat may affect how flexible our thinking becomes as we get older, according to a new study.

Researchers also found that changes in parts of the immune system could be responsible for the effect.

These findings could lead to new treatments that help maintain mental flexibility in aging adults with obesity, sedentary lifestyles, or muscle loss that naturally happens with aging.

Aging, Muscle, and Body Fat

The study looked at data from more than 4,000 middle-aged to older UK Biobank participants, both men and women. The researchers examined direct measurements of lean muscle mass, abdominal fat, and subcutaneous fat, and how they were related to changes in fluid intelligence over six years.

According to one theory of intelligence, general intelligence is divided into fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the ability to solve novel reasoning problems, while crystallized intelligence is the ability to deduce secondary relational abstractions.

Fluid intelligence is inductive or synergetic. Its conclusions don’t automatically follow from their premises. Crystallized intelligence is deductive or asynergetic. Its conclusions do follow automatically from their premises.

The researchers discovered that people mostly in their 40s and 50s who had higher amounts of fat in their mid-section had worse fluid intelligence as they got older. Greater muscle mass, by contrast, appeared to be a protective factor. These relationships stayed the same even after taking into account chronological age, level of education, and socioeconomic status.

“Chronological age doesn’t seem to be a factor in fluid intelligence decreasing over time,” co-author Auriel Willette said, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University. “It appears to be biological age, which here is the amount of fat and muscle.”

Generally, people begin to gain fat and lose lean muscle once they hit middle age, a trend that continues as they get older. To overcome this, implementing exercise routines to maintain lean muscle becomes more important. Co-author Brandon Klinedinst, a doctorate student in neuroscience, says that exercising, especially resistance training, is essential for middle-aged women, who naturally tend to have less muscle mass than men.

Immune System Changes

The study also looked at whether changes in immune system activity could explain links between fat or muscle and fluid intelligence. Previous studies have shown that people with a higher body mass index (BMI) have more immune system activity in their blood, which activates the immune system in the brain and causes problems with cognition. BMI only takes into account total body mass, so it has not been clear whether fat, muscle, or both jump-start the immune system.

In this study, in women, changes in two types of white blood cells, lymphocytes and eosinophils, explained the entire link between more abdominal fat and worse fluid intelligence. In men, a completely different type of white blood cell, basophils, explained roughly half of the fat and fluid intelligence link. While muscle mass was protective, the immune system didn’t seem to play a role.

While the study found correlations between body fat and decreased fluid intelligence, it is unknown at this time if it could increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

“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 says.

Starting a New Year’s resolution now to work out more and eat healthier may be a good idea, not only for your overall health, but to maintain healthy brain function.

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

This article was originally published by Iowa State University. Republished via Futurity.org under Creative Commons License 4.0.