The connection between deep belly fat and Alzheimer’s

One of the most unpleasant changes that can come with midlife is an accumulation of fat around the belly.

The problem with abdominal fat is that it doesn’t just settle around the waistline. It can often translate into the more insidious and far more dangerous visceral fat. This type of fat lies deep beneath your skin, wrapping around your organs and causing all kinds of health problems.

In recent decades, scientists have come to realize that the fat cell is an endocrine organ that secretes hormones and other molecules. Some of these include the inflammatory proteins known as cytokines and a precursor to angiotensin, which causes blood pressure to rise.

As a result, people with visceral fat are at far higher risk of developing diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. And according to research, those aren’t the only conditions that may be influenced by visceral fat….

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Visceral fat and Alzheimer’s disease

Even with the addition of questionable new medications, identifying Alzheimer’s risks at an early stage may be the best hope we have to avoid or slow it.

To that end, researchers assessed the association between brain MRI volumes, as well as amyloid and tau uptake on positron emission tomography (PET) scans, with body mass index (BMI), obesity, insulin resistance and abdominal adipose (fatty) tissue in  54 cognitively healthy adults with an average BMI of 32.

The participants underwent various tests and scans to gather this data, including measuring the volume of both subcutaneous fat (fat under the skin) and visceral fat and the cortical thickness of brain regions that are affected in Alzheimer’s disease. A subset of participants underwent PET scans to examine for amyloid plaques and tau tangles associated with Alzheimer’s.

“Even though there have been other studies linking BMI with brain atrophy or even a higher dementia risk, no prior study has linked a specific type of fat to the actual Alzheimer’s disease protein in cognitively normal people,” says study author Dr. Mahsa Dolatshahi, a post-doctoral research fellow with Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology (MIR) at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Similar studies have not investigated the differential role of visceral and subcutaneous fat, especially in terms of Alzheimer’s amyloid pathology, as early as midlife.”

What they found was alarming. A higher visceral to subcutaneous fat ratio was connected with higher amyloid PET tracer uptake in the precuneus cortex, a region of the brain known to be affected early by amyloid pathology in Alzheimer’s disease. This relationship was worse in men than in women.

The researchers also discovered that higher visceral fat measurements are related to increased brain inflammation.

In short, higher amounts of visceral abdominal fat in midlife are linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. And, the researchers note, this fat is related to changes in the brain that happen as early as 50 years of age — and up to 15 years before the earliest memory loss symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease occur.

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Dr. Dolatshahi says several pathways may play a role. “Inflammatory secretions of visceral fat — as opposed to potentially protective effects of subcutaneous fat — may lead to inflammation in the brain, one of the main mechanisms contributing to Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.

Senior author Dr. Cyrus A. Raji, associate professor of radiology and neurology and director of neuromagnetic resonance imaging at MIR, notes the results may highlight visceral fat as a treatment target to modify risk of future brain inflammation and dementia. 

“By moving beyond body mass index in better characterizing the anatomical distribution of body fat on MRI, we now have a uniquely better understanding of why this factor may increase risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” he says.

Avoiding and reducing visceral fat

The best way to prevent the accumulation of visceral fat is to eat a healthy diet with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables (especially avocadoes), nuts and seeds and lean meat and fish. This type of diet is higher in fiber — and people who eat more fiber tend to have less visceral fat.

One study showed that for every 10 additional grams of fiber people eat, their visceral fat shrinks. High-fiber diets have also been shown to decrease brain inflammation.

Another study notes that a specific type of fiber, inulin, altered gut metabolites and reduced visceral adipose tissue. Inulin fiber can be found in asparagus, leeks, garlic, onions and Jerusalem artichokes, and in some supplements that support overall colon health.

And don’t forget exercise. Its fat-burning potential is likely behind studies that show it can delay cognitive decline.

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Hidden belly fat in midlife linked to Alzheimer’s disease — EurekAlert!

Taking aim at belly fat — Harvard Health Publishing

Inulin reduces visceral adipose tissue mass and improves glucose tolerance through altering gut metabolite — Nutrition & Metabolism

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.