A recent epidemiological study concluded that be the year 2050 the number of overweight or obese Americans would increase to above fifty percent. This statistic is alarming because obesity produces chronic, low-grade, body-wide inflammation, insulin resistance and many of the same metabolic conditions that underlie the aging process itself. However, you do not have to be obese in order to suffer from the consequences of fat. Even skinny older people with relatively more visceral fat than subcutaneous fat are at increased risk for diabetes and mortality.

Obesity, especially excessive belly fat, increases the risk of numerous diseases, including diabetes, atherosclerosis and cancer. In addition, the cytokines associated with the widespread inflammation related to excessive belly fat directly impair cognitive function. Many laboratories around the world, including my own, have documented the molecular mechanisms that explain how excessive body fat impairs brain function. Worse, the effect of excessive belly fat ultimately increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

What would happen if these harmful fats cells were simply removed? Exercise can shrink fat cells but only liposuction can remove them from the body. A group of scientists at the Medical College of Georgia investigated this novel question by conducting three very clever experiments on obese and normal weight mice (Journal of Neuroscience, 2014). First, a group of obese mice were forced to exercise on a treadmill. Unlike the millions of Americans who own treadmills, these mice had no choice but to run. As expected, the daily treadmill exercising reduced belly fat, reduced the level of inflammation in their body, and significantly restructured how their brains’ function at the cellular level leading to greatly improved memory.

In a parallel study, the scientists surgically removed fat pads from a similar group of obese mice, i.e. they underwent a standard liposuction procedure. The results were identical to those produced by running on the treadmill: inflammation was reduced and the mice became significantly smarter. These findings confirm many recent studies that have documented the ability of fat cells to impair brain function and accelerate aging. Then the scientists did something truly astonishing; they transplanted fat pads into normal, healthy weight mice. The impact of the fat cells was immediately obvious: the mice showed increased signs of brain and body inflammation and they developed deleterious changes in brain structure and function that lead to reduced memory performance, i.e. the rats became stupid.

Today, an overwhelming body of scientific evidence across a wide spectrum of medical disciplines strongly argues that obesity accelerates the aging process, impairs overall cognitive function and, ultimately, is responsible for numerous processes that kill us. This recent study suggests that the simple removal of excess fat cells can produce significant positive benefits.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford Univ Press)

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