Overweight Children 'More Prone to Alzheimer's Decades Later': Study

Children who are obese are more prone to dementia decades later, according to new research.

Obesity increases the risk of cognitive decline in middle age - which can lead to full-blown dementia.

The finding is based on more than 1,200 people tracked for over 30 years, starting when they were in school.

Shapedown program for kids
Children who are obese are more prone to dementia decades later, according to new research. In this photo, an overweight child reads her part in a humorous skit held during the Shapedown program for overweight adolescents and children on November 20, 2010, in Aurora, Colorado. John Moore/Getty Images

"Developing strategies that improve low fitness and decrease obesity levels in childhood are important because it could contribute to improvements in cognitive performance in midlife," said lead author Professor Michele Callisaya, of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

"Importantly the study also indicates protective strategies against future cognitive decline may need to start as far back as early childhood, so the brain can develop sufficient reserve against developing conditions such as dementia in older life."

Dementia cases worldwide will triple to over 150 million by 2050. With no cure in sight, there is an increasing focus on lifestyle factors that reduce the risk, including getting enough exercise, eating plenty of oily fish, fruit and vegetables, and cutting down on fatty and sugary foods.

The study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport is the first of its kind. It began in 1985 when the 1,244 Australian participants were aged 7 to 15.

They were assessed for fitness, including cardiorespiratory and muscular power and endurance tests, and waist-to-hip ratio (anthropometry) measurements were taken.

They were followed up between 2017 and 2019, by which time they were 39 to 50. They underwent a series of computer tasks that challenged brain power. Those with the highest levels of cardio-respiratory and muscular fitness and lower average waist-to-hip ratio in childhood had better processing speed and attention. They also had superior global cognitive function - an overall ability to carry out everyday activities and chores.

Decline can begin as early as middle age, Callisaya said. Lower performance has been associated with mild cognitive impairment and dementia in older age.

It is known that children who develop muscular strength, cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance due to sport and activity have better health outcomes later in life.

Higher adult fitness is also linked with better cognition and reduced risk of dementia later in life.

Shapedown program for kids
In the U.S., 14.7 million children and adolescents between 2 and 19 were obese in 2017-2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In this photo, a child sits in a nutrition class during the Shapedown rogram for overweight adolescents and children on November 13, 2010, in Aurora, Colorado. John Moore/Getty Images

It is the first significant study to look for links between objectively measured fitness and obesity in childhood with cognition in middle age.

The idea is that early activity levels, fitness and metabolic health may protect against dementia in our older years.

In the U.S., about 14.7 million (19.7 percent) of children and adolescents between 2 and 19 were obese in 2017-2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was highest (22.2 percent) among those aged 12 to 19.

The CDC also says an estimated 5.8 million Americans 65 or older had Alzheimer's disease in 2020.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.