Big belly in 40s raises Alzheimer's risk in 70s

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Having a big belly in middle age appears to greatly increase one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia decades later, researchers said on Wednesday.

A woman walks toward a subway entrance in a file photo. Having a big belly in middle age appears to greatly increase one's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia decades later, researchers said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Their study tracked 6,583 people in northern California for an average of 36 years starting when they were ages 40 to 45. Their abdominal size was measured at the outset of the study.

A total of 1,049 of them -- nearly 16 percent -- went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia by the time they reached their 70s. Those in the upper 20 percent in terms of belly size in middle age were almost three times more likely to develop dementia than those in the bottom 20 percent of belly size, the researchers found.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia among older people, and researchers have been working to understand the causes and risk factors for the brain disease.

Belly size in middle age was a much better predictor of later development of dementia than looking merely at obesity as shown by a person’s body mass index, a measure of body fat based on height and weight, the researchers said.

“It’s not just weight, it’s where you carry your weight that is a very important risk factor,” said Rachel Whitmer, a research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, California, who led the study.

“If you have two people who are both 10 pounds (4.5 kg) overweight, one carries it around the middle and one carries it around the hips, that person who carries it around the middle needs to know they are at greater risk,” Whitmer said in a telephone interview.

Previous research has shown that having a large abdomen in middle age elevates one’s risk for diabetes, stroke and heart disease, but the researchers said this was the first study linking belly fat in middle age to increased risk of dementia.

Having a large belly raised one’s risk of dementia regardless of whether the person was of normal weight overall, overweight or obese, and regardless of health conditions such as diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease, according to the study published in the journal Neurology.

Whitmer said research is needed to reveal the underlying mechanisms linking abdominal size to eventual dementia risk.

“We’re sort of at the beginning of understanding the clinical effects of these byproducts of fat,” Whitmer said. “But there is evidence from the molecular level, from animal models, and from population studies that it could have a negative effect on the brain.”

Measuring abdomen size in the elderly may not be as valuable an indicator of dementia risk because people as they age naturally are apt to lose muscle and bone mass and gain belly size, Whitmer said.

Editing by Doina Chiacu