Childhood obesity may affect cognitive function in midlife, study finds

Photo (c) Md Saiful Islam Khan - Getty Images

Health initiatives during childhood may be the best way to combat some of these struggles

A new study conducted by researchers from Monash University explored how childhood obesity may impact consumers’ cognitive function as they go into midlife.

After following study participants for three decades, they learned that kids with the strongest physical fitness were likely to become middle-aged adults with the strongest cognitive function. However, they found that the inverse was also true.

“Clusters of low fitness and high obesity in childhood are associated with poorer health outcomes in later life, however their relationship with cognition is unknown,” the researchers wrote. “Identifying such profiles may inform strategies to reduce risk of cognitive decline.” 

Childhood habits can affect long-term health

For the study, the researchers followed over 1,200 participants for 30 years; all of the participants were between the ages of seven and 15 in 1985, and the team tracked their health outcomes through 2019. The children were enrolled in the Australian Childhood Determinants of Adult Health Study, and the team analyzed their waist-to-hip ratio, muscular power, cardiorespiratory fitness, and muscular endurance; the participants also completed cognitive assessments in the final two years of the study. 

The researchers learned that kids with the strongest cardiorespiratory fitness were likely to become adults with the strongest cognitive function. On the other hand, those with the weakest fitness levels during childhood didn’t perform as well on the cognitive assessments in middle age. 

The study showed that better muscular fitness, cardiorespiratory fitness, and a lower waist-to-hip ratio during childhood were linked with improvements in three key areas in middle age: overall cognitive function, processing speed, and attention. 

The researchers explained that these findings are important because they show that habits that are learned during childhood can affect consumers into middle age and beyond. The team said it’s important to identify what factors can influence physical and cognitive health throughout life. 

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

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