Study Links Abdominal Fat to Brain Function — But Only in Men

by Staff Writer
February 28, 2024 at 1:02 PM UTC

Rutgers University research links abdominal fat to brain size and function, especially in middle-aged men at higher Alzheimer's risk.

Clinical relevance: Rutgers University research links abdominal fat to brain size and function, especially in middle-aged men at higher Alzheimer’s risk.

  • The study focuses on the offspring of more than 200 middle-aged Alzheimer’s dementia patients, examining fat deposits via MRI scans.
  • Findings suggest a gender-specific link, with higher pancreatic fat correlating with lower cognition and brain volumes in high-risk middle-aged men.
  • Results challenge traditional BMI-based evaluations, emphasizing the need for targeted interventions and gender-specific approaches in understanding and mitigating the impact of abdominal fat on brain health.

New research out of Rutgers University shows that abdominal fat could influence brain size and function. The study, appearing in Obesity, also suggests that this correlation appears strongest in middle-aged men already at increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Sapir Golan Shekhtman, a Ph.D. student at the Joseph Sagol Neuroscience Center at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel, wrote the study. Michal Schnaider Beeri, director of the Herbert and Jacqueline Krieger Klein Alzheimer’s Research Center at Rutgers Brain Health Institute, oversaw the research. 

A Gender-Specific Link?

“In middle-aged males at high Alzheimer’s disease risk — but not females — higher pancreatic fat was associated with lower cognition and brain volumes, suggesting a potential sex-specific link between distinct abdominal fat with brain health,” Beeri explained in a press release.

The team looked at the offspring of more than 200 healthy middle-aged Alzheimer’s dementia patients. Specifically, the researchers combed through MRI scans to examine the fat deposits in the pancreas, liver, and abdomen.

The researchers found a link between high BMI and elevated hepatic and pancreatic fat percentage.

“But not with visceral adipose tissue (VAT) percentage. In females only, high BMI was associated with high subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT) percentage,” the authors wrote.

Additionally, the study showed that among middle-aged men at higher Alzheimer’s risk, a pattern emerged between higher pancreatic fat percentage, lower cognitive function, and inferior frontal gyrus volume.

A New Perspective on Abdominal Fat

This new study backs up earlier research that had already established obesity as one of nine risk factors for lower cognitive functioning and higher dementia risk. However, this study highlighted how it affects genders differently.

This research also counters the traditional method of relying on BMI and waist circumference to evaluate cognitive risks. The researchers insisted that BMI doesn’t do an adequate job of analyzing the distribution of body fat distribution. And BMI measurements ignore gender differences altogether.

“Our findings indicate stronger correlations compared to the relationships between BMI and cognition, suggesting that abdominal fat depots, rather than BMI, are a risk factor for lower cognitive functioning and higher dementia risk,” Shekhtman said.

What Comes Next?

Consequently, the researchers conclude that these results “open new avenues for targeted interventions and further exploration of sex-specific approaches in understanding and mitigating the impact of abdominal fat on brain health.”

These results highlight the importance of investigating the inter-relationships of fat depots, brain aging, and cognition in the context of gender differences, the researchers conclude.

As a result, they argue for more research to confirm these findings and investigate what might explain these specific associations. Critically, it could spawn gender-specific interventions for the promotion of brain health.

Further Reading

Biogen Announces Plan to Discontinue Alzheimer’s Drug Aduhelm

Researchers Uncover Alzheimer’s Link to Past Medical Treatments

Trust in Physicians and Regional Brain Volumes

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