WASHINGTON — People who have big bellies in their 40s are much more likely to get Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia in their 70s, according to new research that links the middle-age spread to fading minds for the first time.
The study of more than 6,000 people found the more fat they had in their guts in their early to mid 40s, the greater their chances of developing dementia as they aged. Those who had the biggest midsections faced more than twice the risk of the leanest.
Surprisingly, a sizable stomach seems to increase the risk even among those who are not obese, or even overweight, the researchers reported in a paper published online Wednesday by the journal Neurology.
"A large belly independent of total weight is a potent predictor of dementia," said Rachel Whitmer, a research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif., who led the new study.
Whitmer and her colleagues analyzed data from 6,583 male and female members of Kaiser Permanente of Northern California who had their belly fat carefully calculated as part of a broad health study from 1964 to 1973. The researchers examined whether there was a link between abdominal obesity between the ages of 40 and 45 and the chances of developing Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia by the time they hit their 70s between 1994 and 2006.
Dementia is an age-related condition that involves the loss of memory and other cognitive functions. It affects 5.7-million Americans, or about one in 10 people older than 65. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60 percent to 80 percent of cases.
Belly size was measured by using a caliper to find the distance between the back and the surface of the upper abdomen. For the study, a distance of about 10 inches or more was considered high.
The risk for dementia, the researchers found, increased steadily with the amount of fat in the abdomen, even after accounting for alternative explanations, such as other diseases, bad habits and lower education. They found no such association for fat in the thigh.
Previous studies have shown that people who are overweight are at increased risk for dementia. But when the researchers examined the relationship between body mass index, a ratio of height and weight that is the most common way to determine whether someone is overweight or obese, they found that those with big bellies were still nearly twice as likely to develop dementia even if they had BMIs that were considered healthy. In fact, their risk was about the same as for those who were overweight or obese.
"What that tells you is the effect of the belly is over and above that of being overweight," Whitmer said. "One of the take-home messages is it's not just your weight but where you carry your weight in middle age that is a strong predictor of dementia."
The research is the latest evidence that fat in the abdomen is the most dangerous kind. Previous studies have linked the apple-shaped physique to a greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. Researchers suspect that those fat cells are the worst because of their proximity to major organs. They ooze noxious chemicals, stoking inflammation, constricting blood vessels and triggering other processes that might also damage brain cells.
"There is a lot of work out there that suggests that the fat wrapped around your inner organs is much more metabolically active than other types of fat right under the skin," Whitmer said. "It's pumping out toxic substances. It's very potent toxic fat."
Stomach fat might increase the risk for dementia in the same ways it promotes heart disease — by boosting blood pressure and constricting blood flow, Jose Luchsinger of Columbia University said. But Luchsinger and others said it might also promote the accumulation of a substance found in the brain of Alzheimer's patients known as amyloid.
Some experts remained skeptical, saying this kind of study cannot rule out the possibility that whatever is making people gain weight in their bellies in their 40s also puts them at risk for dementia in their 70s.
"There could be a connection. I'm not saying there couldn't be," said Barbara Corkery, director of Boston University's obesity research center. "But it could be those two things are caused by the same root cause."
More research also needs to be done to determine if reducing belly size can lower the risk factor for dementia, Whitmer said. Researchers don't know if the study participants who had large bellies in their 40s lost the fat before developing dementia in their 70s, she said.
However, Whitmer said the findings provide one more reason to try to maintain a healthy weight, noting that this type of fat is the most easily shed by dieting and exercise.
"It's not as stubborn as the fat under the skin," she said. "It's a modifiable risk factor."
Information from the Associated Press, Fresno Bee and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.