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Study: Obesity can impact teen brains, hinder performance

Published: Monday, June 29 2015 10:21 p.m. MDT

According to research just published in the journal Pediatrics, a According to research just published in the journal Pediatrics, a "constellation" of health problems linked to obesity can create brain impairment in adolescents, lowering test scores and hindering efforts to learn. (Shutterstock.com)

A "constellation" of health problems linked to obesity can impair the brains of adolescents, lowering test scores and hindering efforts to learn, according to research just published in the journal Pediatrics.

The findings may be important in determining whether children need to be treated for obesity, researchers from the New York University School of Medicine said.

That cluster of health issues related to obesity, called metabolic syndrome or MetS, includes symptoms related to development of heart disease and diabetes, such as high blood pressure, low levels of "good" cholesterol, high triglycerides, a large waistline and insulin resistance. The teens who have the syndrome do worse in school than other peers who are of normal weight, the study found. Metabolic syndrome incidence, they noted, has become more prevalent in tandem with an increase in obesity. And the researchers said the findings may indicate heavy teens could face lower academic and professional success.

"The prevalence of MetS parallels the rise in childhood obesity," said lead researcher Dr. Antonio Convit, a professor of psychiatry and medicine at NYU and a member of the Nathan Kline Research Institute. "There are huge numbers of people out there who have problems with their weight. If those problems persist long enough, they will lead to the development of MetS and diabetes. As yet, there has been little information available about what happens to the brain in the setting of obesity and MetS and before diabetes onset in children."

Pearl Ganotisi sips from her 24-ounce of soda drinks as she takes her meal in an American hamburger chain Friday, June 1, 2012 in Manila, Philippines.   New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks in restaurants, delis and movie theaters in the hopes of combating obesity. Under his plan, sugary drinks would be limited to 16 fluid ounces _ almost half a liter. Around the world, portion sizes are generally smaller. Perceptions of American overconsumption have been fueled by films such as “Super Size Me” and the spread of U.S. fast-food chains. (AP Photo/Pat Roque) (Pat Roque, AP) Pearl Ganotisi sips from her 24-ounce of soda drinks as she takes her meal in an American hamburger chain Friday, June 1, 2012 in Manila, Philippines. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks in restaurants, delis and movie theaters in the hopes of combating obesity. Under his plan, sugary drinks would be limited to 16 fluid ounces _ almost half a liter. Around the world, portion sizes are generally smaller. Perceptions of American overconsumption have been fueled by films such as “Super Size Me” and the spread of U.S. fast-food chains. (AP Photo/Pat Roque) (Pat Roque, AP)

The study examined 49 adolescents with the syndrome compared to 62 without it, matching them on age, socioeconomic status, school grades, gender and ethnicity. Among other things, they looked at blood tests, magnetic resonance imaging of the brain and neuropsychological evaluations. A release explaining the study said the researchers wanted to "ensure things like cultural differences in diet and access to quality health care did not cloud the data."

They found that those with metabolic syndrome "showed significantly lower arithmetic, spelling, attention and mental flexibility and a trend for lower overall intelligence." The study found they also had smaller hippocampal volumes, more brain cerebrospinal fluid and less microstructural integrity parts of their brains.

The hippocampus is integral to learning and recall. And the more symptoms the teens had suggesting metabolic syndrome, the more profound the effects were across the board in terms of deficits, the study said.

The findings suggest, the authors wrote, that "even relatively short-term impairments in metabolism, in the absence of clinically manifest vascular disease, may give rise to brain complications. In view of these alarming results, it is plausible that obesity-associated metabolic disease, short of type 2 diabetes mellitus, may be mechanically linked to lower the academic and professional potential of adolescents."

In this June 16, 2009, file photo first lady Michelle Obama shells peas with fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in the kitchen after they harvested vegetables from the first lady's garden on the South Lawn of The White House in Washington. The garden has given the first lady a platform to speak about the country's childhood obesity problem, the benefits of eating fresh food and  growing your own, and to teach children to appreciate vegetables early in life. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) (Alex Brandon, AP) In this June 16, 2009, file photo first lady Michelle Obama shells peas with fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in the kitchen after they harvested vegetables from the first lady's garden on the South Lawn of The White House in Washington. The garden has given the first lady a platform to speak about the country's childhood obesity problem, the benefits of eating fresh food and growing your own, and to teach children to appreciate vegetables early in life. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) (Alex Brandon, AP)

That calls, they said, for early interventions since more than half of American teens are overweight or obese and 30 to 40 percent of those who are show signs of metabolic syndrome.

"Parents need to understand that obesity has medical consequences, even in children, and some of those consequences may be impacting more than just the long-term health of the cardiovascular system," Convit said in a news release explaining the research. "We need to do what our grandmothers have told us all along: 'Eat well, don't overeat and try to move as much as possible.’ ”

He told HealthDay reporter Alan Mozes that researchers used to believe that the bad things that can come from metabolic syndrome are 20 years in the future. "But this work demonstrates that these health issues are having a deleterious impact on a kid's brain now. Today."

Previous studies have shown that adults with metabolic syndrome have "deficits" in thinking ability. This is the first study to show the same problems occur in children, according to an article in The Telegraph.

A report on Fox News noted that weight is not the target, but rather the MetS symptoms. That's what a doctor should look for. Reporter Joseph Brownstein quoted Convit: "You can have a kid who is quite fit who doesn't have these problems, even if they're carrying excess weight. It's the couch potato … who (has) the problem."

The researchers said more study is needed to determine if significant weight loss can reverse the damage to cognitive performance and brain structure.

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