How It Affects Brain Health

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Experts say a child’s brain health can be improved after weight loss. Martin Novak/Getty Images
  • Researchers say obesity in children can lead to structural changes in the brain, including the degradation of white matter.
  • Experts say these effects on the brain may be reversible if a child loses weight.
  • They say parents can help their child lose weight with holistic lifestyle changes as well as setting a healthy example.

Obesity in children could lead to structural changes in the brain that can affect cognitive health, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut report that children between the ages of 9 and 10 with the highest weight and body mass index (BMI) scores had impairments in their brains, including degradation of white matter and thinning in the brain’s cortex.

These impairments are likely to affect children’s cognitive control, motivation, and reward-based decision-making, the study authors said.

The findings were presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

The study hasn’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.

“We were surprised by the extent of white matter impairment,” Simone Kaltenhauser, PhD, a study author and a post-graduate research fellow at Yale Medicine, said in a press release.

“Increased BMI and weight are not only associated with physical health consequences but also with brain health,” she added. “Our study showed that higher weight and BMI z-scores in 9- and 10-year-olds were associated with changes in macrostructures, microstructures, and functional connectivity that worsened brain health.”

“This indicates that there may be serious consequences of childhood obesity if left unchecked,” said Dr. Leah Alexander, a pediatrician in New Jersey.

“These findings provide an important reminder that we should strive to promote healthy lifestyles from a young age so that we can ensure our children have healthy brains into adulthood,” Alexander told Healthline.

Previous studies have suggested a link between childhood obesity and poorer brain health.

However, this study was the first of its kind in breadth, using data from 11,878 children ages 9 to 10 years that were part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study.

Overweight and obesity rates in the study were 21 percent for 9-year-olds and 17 percent for 10-year-olds.

The national childhood average obesity rate is about 18 percent.

The study looked at the connection between obesity and white matter loss at a select age range among children, but it remains to be seen whether those effects persist over the years, the study authors note.

There is a similarly established connection between obesity and poorer brain health among adults as well.

That said, experts say it’s likely that with a reversal of obesity could come a reversal in some of the ill effects of white matter degradation.

“There is no known effective cure to white matter loss. However, a child’s brain is not fully developed in adolescence, suggesting that lifestyle changes like increasing physical activity and lowering BMI may help foster a more suitable environment to promote brain health,” Emily Tower, PT, DPT, a pediatric physical therapist, told Healthline. “Physical exercise is linked to disease prevention, reducing cognitive decline, weight management, and psychological benefits.”

Alexander agreed.

“There is some evidence to suggest that the impacts of obesity on pediatric brain health can be reversed or improved with lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise,” she said. “This includes an increase in both physical and cognitive performance. Studies have shown that losing weight can boost executive function, attention, memory, and overall cognitive functioning.”

In trying to encourage children with weight issues to lose weight, the pervasive negative stigma associated with being overweight or obese can harm kids more than help, so the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a sensitive approach from parents and experts.

“Rather than motivating positive change, this stigma contributes to behaviors such as binge eating, social isolation, avoidance of healthcare services, decreased physical activity, and increased weight gain, which worsen obesity and create additional barriers to healthy behavior change,” the organization wrote in a 2017 statement. “Furthermore, experiences of weight stigma also dramatically impair quality of life, especially for youth.”

Instead, parents of children dealing with obesity and other weight issues should not focus on strict calorie counting and weight loss but more holistic lifestyle changes, experts say.

“Parents are able to play a significant role in shaping their children’s health habits,” Tower said. “Be a role model to your child by displaying a healthy lifestyle. Children learn from their caregivers. One can also join their child in making healthy choices and lifestyle changes, helping your child not feel singled out while trying something new.”