This post was adapted from a previous blog post by Dr. Avena for the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. The original post can be seen here

Metabolic syndrome (MetS) “is an example of a health variable that may play a causal role in cognitive and language declines with age,” Avron Spiro III, PhD, said at a symposium during the American Psychological Association convention held earlier this month.

MetS is a constellation of five interrelated risk factors (a large waistline, a high triglyceride level, a low HDL cholesterol level, high blood pressure and high fasting blood sugar; three are needed to be diagnosed with MetS). It is known to increase an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes. Recent research has also linked cardiovascular and metabolic declines to decreases in different cognitive abilities among older adults, showing reduced cognitive speed, executive functions, memory, and language functioning (i.e., word finding, sentence processing).

We also know that lack of physical activity is closely linked to metabolic syndrome, and that regular exercise can help to control weight, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers, as well as improve many aspects of mental health, including cognitive decline. Due to the indisputable evidence of the physical and mental health benefits of exercise, 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity is recommended five days a week. However, less than half of American adults meet this recommendation, and less than 15 percent perform regular vigorous physical activity.

Pretty gloomy statistics, right? As Edmund Acevedo, PhD, said, “although physical activity is important in decreasing the risk of having metabolic syndrome, it is clear that the challenge lies in increasing physical activity.”

A good example of this challenge is physical education classes in public schools. Children and adolescents need even more regular exercise than adults – at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity every day. However, many schools do not have enough gym teachers, gyms (or both), or have cut out gym classes because of increasing educational demands. Ironically, if physical activity is shortchanged because of an increased emphasis on academic progress, but a lack of exercise leads in part to excess weight gain and developing MetS, these children may be set up for reduced cognitive functioning in the long term.

More than a third of U.S. children overweight or obese today, meaning that more than a third have an increased risk of developing a whole spectrum of diseases, metabolic syndrome included. It is thus essential, in my opinion, to start the prevention of overweight and obesity as early as possible as a preventive measure for MetS and the physical and mental decline that can accompany it later in life.

While the important questions of who is going to get involved, when, how, and who is going to pay for the necessary changes are essential, one thing is clear – people must reach the recommended physical activity levels starting at the earliest age possible, and this goal must continue throughout the school years. State legislatures and departments of education should therefore initiate or strengthen physical education programs (and before- and after-school policies) to meet these goals. Once that is achieved, we can hope that the regular exercise habits adopted in school will continue into and throughout adulthood and lead to better physical and psychological health for years to come.

Appreciation is extended to Ms. Regina Vaicekonyte and Susan Murray for drafting this post.

Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist/psychologist at the NY Obesity Research Center at Columbia University and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She has published over 60 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She recently edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (Springer/Humana Press, 2013), and she has a book Why Diets Fail (Ten Speed/Crown) that was released January 1, 2014. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association. She has appeared on several television programs, including Good Day NY and The Couch.




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