How Belly Fat Affects Your Brain Function

The risks of an expanding waistline are well documented. Excess belly fat is linked to a wide range of ailments, including heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer (via Johns Hopkins Medicine). One of the reasons belly fat is more dangerous than other fat that accumulates in other areas of the body. This is due to the fact that it surrounds internal organs, which gives it its other name, "visceral fat." In men, this kind of fat can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. In women, belly fat is associated with breast cancer and gallbladder problems (via Harvard Medical School).

Due to a range of factors, including larger portion sizes at restaurants, less active lifestyles, and larger consumption of processed foods, belly fat has been steadily increasing among adults in the United States. This is despite the fact that obesity rates have been somewhat stabilizing in recent years (via UT Southwestern Medical Center).

While even the average person can understand the unhealthy effects of excess weight around the midsection, there may be an even more disturbing side effect: a decline in intelligence.

Is your body fat lowering your IQ?

Research shows that there may indeed be a link between carrying extra pounds around the midsection and changes in brain function. A 2019 study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity analyzed data on more than 4,000 men and women around age 65 and with no cognitive impairments. The study analyzed the effects of abdominal subcutaneous fat and changes in fluid intelligence over a six-year period.

According to Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, fluid intelligence is the ability to have flexible thinking and an understanding of abstract concepts. Those with high fluid intelligence have a better ability to perform analogical reasoning tasks compared to people with average fluid intelligence. It allows people to think abstractly and solve problems creatively.

The 2019 study found that participants who had more abdominal fat tended to show a reduction in fluid intelligence with age. On the other hand, participants with more muscle mass seemed not to show the same decline.

Additionally, a 2013 study published in Neuropsychology showed that obesity is linked to decreased attention span and impaired fine motor speed, as well as a decline in processing speed. The study also found that deficits in executive functioning increased in older adults who were obese versus those who were not.

Age is not the only factor

Unfortunately, the impact of obesity on cognitive intelligence is not only limited to older adults. A 2013 study published in PLOS One showed that the growing inactivity among children has led to a decline in health and cognitive ability. In the study, a group of children was asked to learn the names of specific regions on a map. The following day, they were asked again to see what they had retained. The children who were more fit showed a higher rate of retention versus the children who were less in shape. In addition, having children engage in an hour of after-school activity, such as playing tag, led to improvements in attentiveness and information processing.

There are several ways you can start reducing belly fat, including eating foods high in soluble fiber, like avocados and Brussels sprouts, and curtailing your alcohol intake (via Healthline). Even losing a small amount of weight — between five and 10 pounds of your current weight — can help reduce the risk of obesity-related disease (via the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute). If you start on a healthy regimen today, not only will your body thank you, but it appears that your brain will as well.