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Tuesday, 2 May, 2000, 22:59 GMT 23:59 UK
Obesity linked to dementia
Excess weight may damage brain function
Not only do obesity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure increase the risk of heart disease - they may also be linked to dementia.

US researchers have found that men who were overweight, had high blood pressure and high cholesterol when first examined around the age of 50, were more likely to suffer from vascular dementia in their late seventies.

Vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's disease. It is linked to damage in the blood vessels serving the brain.

Improving the risk factor levels in middle age may result in delaying the onset of vascular dementia in older age

Dr Sandra Kalmijn, Institute on Aging

This can lead to a reduction in the supply of essential nutrients to the brain cells, and may also lead to a series of small strokes which gradually destroy parts of the brain.

Lead researcher Dr Sandra Kalmijn, of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland, said: "It is too early to state that reducing their risk factor levels will definitely decrease the risk of vascular dementia.

"However, if these findings are confirmed by other large studies, improving the risk factor levels in middle age may result in delaying the onset of vascular dementia in older age."

The researchers studied data from 3,555 Japanese-American men who, since the mid-1960s, had been enrolled in the Honolulu Heart Program, which examines participants' health at regular intervals.

During testing in the early 1990s, 215 of the men had clinical signs of dementia.

Syndrome X

The researchers identified men who had a cluster of cardiovascular disease risk factors that has been termed syndrome X. These include elevated levels of blood glucose and cholesterol, high blood pressure and high body weight.

They found that syndrome X in middle age increased the risk of vascular dementia in old age.

However, they found no evidence that men who had syndrome X in their 50s were more likely to have Alzheimer's dementia later in life.

Dr Kalmijn said: "In general, people with a clustering of metabolic cardiovascular risk factors, even if they are still at middle age, should be watched closely.

"They should be encouraged to modify risk factors, such as blood pressure, body weight and cholesterol levels, by eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise."

It shows that making lifestyle changes when in middle age can reduce that mental decline later on

Professor Lawrence Whalley, University of Aberdeen

Professor Lawrence Whalley, of the department of mental health at Aberdeen University medical school, said the study provided firm proof of what many doctors had long suspected.

The study, he said, was large enough to be able to generate results not unduly influenced by factors such as the age and intelligence of those who took part.

Professor Whalley said: "It emphasises the importance of lifestyle in the risk of mental decline in later life, and shows that making lifestyle changes when in middle age can reduce that mental decline later on."

The research was presented to a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.

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