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Obese teens score lower on brain tests

4th September 2012

Researchers in the United States have found a link between metabolic changes linked to obesity and impaired brain functioning in adolescents.

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Experts at the NYU School of Medicine say that metabolic syndrome, which has been linked to obesity and an increased risk of a number of diseases, including diabetes, is linked to poorer brain functioning in children and teenagers.

Writing in the journal Pediatrics, the researchers said that metabolic syndrome had increased in the US population along with childhood obesity.

Metabolic syndrome is defined as three of more of five conditions: abdominal obesity, low levels of good cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood pressure and pre-diabetic insulin resistance.

It has previously been shown to be linked to neurocognitive impairment in adults, a link that was thought to be the result of the syndrome's long-term effects.

The new study has now revealed that teenagers with metabolic syndrome suffer greater neurocognitive impairment than adults in the same category.

The team studied 111 adolescents, 49 of whom had metabolic syndrome and 62 of whom did not. Those with the condition performed 5-15% worse on academic tests.

Scans of the teenagers' brains also showed that those with metabolic syndrome had smaller hippocampuses, part of the brain involved in learning and memory formation.

According to NYU University psychiatry and medicine professor Antonio Convit, the prevalence of metabolic syndrome parallels the rise in childhood obesity.

He said that a large number of people who are currently overweight or obese could run into metabolic problems if they allowed the problem to persist.

Of the group studied, 40% were considered overweight or obese, but did not have three out of the five health issues needed to fall into the metabolic syndrome group.

The groups were also balanced according to age, socioeconomic status, school grade, gender and ethnicity to minimise the impact of cultural and economic differences between the study subjects.

Those in the metabolic syndrome group showed maths and spelling scores that were significantly lower than the control group, took longer to perform tasks, and could not read as well.

The effect was more marked, the more metabolic health problems the participants had.

Convit said the findings might help paediatricians to motivate families to make profound and long-lasting changes to their lifestyles.

He said many doctors did not take children's blood pressure, nor were cholesterol and insulin resistance tests part of normal paediatric practice.

But parents should understand the full medical consequences of obesity, in a nation where nearly 40% of the population is considered obese, he added.

He said a decrease of emphasis on physical education in schools, originally aimed at improving academic performance, could be having the opposite effect.

 

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