Is Metabolic Syndrome dumbing down the teenage brain?
Yes, suggests new research, which found lower reading and math scores and other measures of cognitive ability among U.S. teens with the Metabolic Syndrome.
What is the Metabolic Syndrome, and what can we do about it?
A new study published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that overweight or obese teens with the Metabolic Syndrome “showed significantly lower arithmetic, spelling, attention, and mental flexibility and a trend for lower overall intelligence, ” reported the New York University School of Medicine authors.1
What is the Metabolic Syndrome?
The Metabolic Syndrome is a cluster of factors indicating a dysfunctional metabolism. It is reaching epidemic levels not only among American adults but children. Government health surveys estimate that nearly 1 in 10 U.S. teens – and more than one-third of overweight and obese teens – have the Metabolic Syndrome.2
Kids with the Metabolic Syndrome have at least three of these risk factors:
- Excessive belly fat
- High blood pressure
- High triglyceride levels
- Low HDL (good) cholesterol
- High blood sugar
Diabetes, Heart Disease, Brain Dysfunction
For years, scientists have known that the Metabolic Syndrome can greatly increase the risk of diabetes and heart attacks. Recently, studying adults, researchers have also documented a link between the syndrome and cognitive impairment, including dementia. But they assumed that the brain dysfunction seen in adults had happened after many years, maybe even decades, of living with the syndrome.
This new study on teens has dashed that assumption. It suggests that if you have the Metabolic Syndrome in your adolescent years, you may be suffering some of its damaging effects – in your adolescent years.
Shockingly, the NYU scientists also found that the syndrome affected the physical nature of the brain. They took MRIs of 49 teens with the Metabolic Syndrome as well as MRIs of 62 other teens who were syndrome-free, and discovered that the youth with the syndrome had “smaller hippocampal volumes” (the hippocampus plays a major role in the learning and recall of new information), as well as other brain changes, including “reductions of microstructural integrity in major white matter tracts.”
And the more Metabolic Syndrome factors the teenagers had, the greater the brain impairments were.
Concluded the scientists: “In view of these alarming results, it is plausible that obesity-associated metabolic disease…may be mechanistically linked to lower the academic and professional potential of adolescents.”
The authors urged immediate action: “These results in adolescents strongly argue for an early and comprehensive intervention.”
Since 2002, the physicians and other faculty at the Pritikin Longevity Center have provided comprehensive intervention for children and teens. These programs, held every summer, involve in-depth education in healthy food and fitness habits.
The results have been documented by scientists at UCLA in three peer-reviewed journals – Metabolism Clinical and Experimental3, Atherosclerosis4, and, newly published in August, the American Journal of Physiology5.
Reversal of Metabolic Syndrome
In all three studies, tracking overweight children ages 8 to 17 who arrived at Pritikin with the Metabolic Syndrome, the scientists found that 100% of the children were able to reduce several metabolic risk factors, including triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar. And 100% of the children returned home no longer classified as having the Metabolic Syndrome.
What’s more, this clearing up of the syndrome happened quickly – within two weeks.
That’s important to point out because some health professionals have argued that children – as well as adults – need to achieve major weight loss before they can hope to ameliorate the syndrome.
“That’s false,” asserts Dr. James Barnard of UCLA Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, and one of the scientists studying children at Pritikin. “It is poor food and fitness that cause the Metabolic Syndrome. And it is healthy food and fitness, like the Pritikin lifestyle, that drive out the syndrome.”
Healthy Food & Fitness – Goal #1
“Yes, weight loss is vital,” continues Dr. Barnard, “and we documented that in two weeks the children did in fact shed on average nine pounds. And that’s great. But they still had a long way to go before hitting normal weight, probably many more weeks and months. Not so with the Metabolic Syndrome. In 14 days, following the Pritikin Program, they were syndrome-free.”
It all boils down to this: Losing weight takes time, but getting healthy can happen very, very quickly.
Metabolic Syndrome and the Teenage Brain
Will reversing the Metabolic Syndrome arrest brain impairments that may have already taken place? We don’t know; the science has not yet been done. But it makes sense that clearing up the syndrome might, at the very least, halt further mental decline.
And the quicker we take action, the better. No longer can we look at our children’s chubby bellies or abnormal triglycerides and other numbers and simply say, “Oh, it’s just baby fat,” or “We’ll deal with it later… There are more important things to take care of right now.”
There really aren’t. Our children’s future success may well depend on our success, right now, in teaching them how to eat and live well.