Obesity in children: long-term consequences for the brain

According to statistics, childhood obesity is on the rise. New research results from a long-term study now show that obesity and poor fitness in young people can have long-term consequences for health – more precisely: for the brain.

According to the Robert Koch Institute, about one in six children in Germany is overweight or obese. Among the 11- to 13-year-olds, it is even every fifth.1 However, too many kilos in childhood and adolescence can have negative health consequences well into adulthood. A study from Australia now shows that obesity in children affects the brain years later. In other words, the risk of cognitive decline increases in middle age and thus the likelihood of later developing dementia.

Relationship between fitness, obesity and cognitive performance

The study is the first significant study to establish links between objectively measured fitness, childhood obesity and cognitive function in middle age. For this, more than 1200 people were observed for over 30 years.

Consequences of being overweight on mental performance

Cognitive decline is a problem that really only affects people as they get older. Who is afraid of developing dementia as a 60-year-old when they are young? Parents should now sit up and notice: If the offspring is already overweight in their youth, it can not only cause various diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, joint problems or depression, but also serious long-term consequences. Researchers from Melbourne, Australia, have now published the results of a long-term study in the “Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport”, according to which overweight and malformed children also achieved poorer cognitive performance in health later in life.2

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The study ran for more than 30 years

The long-term study started in 1985. 1244 Australian children between the ages of seven and 15 were examined for their fitness using strength and endurance tests. The waist-to-hip ratio was also measured. Between 2017 and 2019, participants (now between 39 and 50 years old) were observed again and subjected to a series of computer tasks that challenged brain power.

Those with the highest levels of muscle and cardiorespiratory fitness and lower average waist-to-hip ratios in childhood also had better treatment speed and attention. Cardiorespiratory fitness refers to the body’s ability to supply muscles and the heart with oxygen during physical activity. The subjects who were more fit at the time also had better global cognitive function later in the Middle Ages. This means that their overall ability to perform everyday activities and tasks is also better.

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Early obesity and later poorer cognitive health

So athletic children with high muscle strength, cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance have better cognitive health later in life. But does that automatically mean that the less athletic participants have poorer cognition?

In this case, yes, because the subjects with poorer fitness scores later also had poorer psychomotor skills and lower global cognition compared to those with the highest fitness level and lowest waist-to-hip ratio. A worsening may already begin in the Middle Ages, according to lead author of the study Michele Callisaya of Monash University in Australia in a university statement.3 Lower performance has not only been associated with cognitive impairment in the Middle Ages, but also with dementia later in life.

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Prevention of obesity in children

“Importantly, the study also shows that protection strategies against future cognitive decline may need to begin in early childhood so that the brain can develop adequate reserves against diseases such as dementia in old age,” says Callisaya. This means that childhood obesity should be taken even more seriously than is already advisable. Parents who develop strategies against obesity and poor fitness at an early stage can do much for their child’s future and make a major contribution to improving cognitive performance in mid and late life. Early activity, physical activity and good fitness ensure a healthy metabolism – and this in turn can reduce the risk of dementia in old age.

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The role of dementia in the future

The number of dementia cases worldwide will triple to over 150 million by 2050. That predicts a study from 2019.4 This is primarily due to the aging of the population. At the same time, however, it is a problem that also has underlying unhealthy lifestyle factors. Due to technical advances, there is no longer enough movement in everyday life and self-thinking is largely taken from you. But smoking, obesity and chronically high blood sugar levels also promote dementia, Alzheimers & Co. Physical activity, eating lots of fatty fish, fruits and vegetables and reducing fatty and sugary foods as well as alcohol can reduce the risk.


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