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Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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Obesity Impairs Brain Development in Adolescents

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Obesity is developing at an alarming rate in young children and adolescents. It’s estimated that more than one in every five adolescents are obese, and nearly one in ten suffer from the metabolic syndrome (MetS). The metabolic syndrome is a cluster of health risks that, when combined, significantly increase the chances of heart disease. The syndrome is also strongly linked to Type 2 diabetes. The criteria include abdominal obesity, hypertension, high triglycerides, elevated fasting glucose, and low HDL (good) cholesterol.

In addition to its effects on the heart and cardiovascular system, MetS has also been associated with reduced cognitive function in adults and a higher likelihood for developing dementia. Until recently, no one had fully evaluated the effect of the metabolic syndrome on the brain health of children.

In a report published in the medical journal Pediatrics, Dr. Po Lai Yau and associates evaluated 49 adolescents with MetS and 62 without the syndrome. The kids were otherwise quite similar in terms of gender, socioeconomic status, age, and ethnicity. Those with MetS scored substantially lower on tests of mathematics, spelling, attention span, and mental flexibility. Furthermore, MRI scans of the brains of those kids with MetS were found to be alarmingly abnormal with smaller hippocampal volumes and evidence of abnormal brain tissue fiber integrity. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that is critical for memory; it is also involved in spatial orientation and emotions. Those with MetS also had a higher volume of brain fluid, which suggests reduced brain volume.

These very scary findings should serve as a strong call to action. Childhood and adolescence are crucial times for normal brain development. Our children are bombarded with fast food advertising messages, appeased with snack foods and sodas, and lured into sedentary entertainment. Depriving their developing brains of good nutrition and healthy exercise can have tragic and long-lasting consequences. They deserve better, and it’s time for families and communities to take notice and take responsibility. 

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Tags: Risk Factors for Heart Disease , Weight and Heart Health

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About the Author


MD, FACC

Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.

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