Menus Subscribe Search

High Calorie Diets Can Mean Memory Loss

• September 19, 2012 • 4:00 AM

We know that overeating takes a toll on our physical health, and new research shows it takes a hefty toll on our brains, too.

Yet another reason not to overeat: According to a recent study from the Mayo Clinic, there is a link between memory loss and a high calorie diet. People over 70 who consumed more than 2,143 calories a day doubled their risk of memory loss and mild cognitive impairment—a stage of decline beyond normal age-related changes when memory, language, and thinking start slipping.

“We observed a dose-response pattern, which simply means the higher the amount of calories consumed each day, the higher the risk of mild cognitive impairment,” explained study author Yonas E. Geda, a neurologist and psychiatrist with Mayo Clinic in Arizona. There is good news, though. People with diets that provide between 600 and 2,143 calories per day showed no memory decline over the eight-year study.

How and why weight affects brain function has worried medical researchers for the past decade; rising rates of obesity and Alzheimer’s disease have taken a staggering toll on long-term care. In the U.S. alone, more than 190 million Americans—two-thirds of the population—are overweight or obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the total yearly healthcare cost for weight-related medical conditions is $147 billion.

For the 5.2 million Americans with Alzheimer’s and dementia, the long-term healthcare costs are even higher—$183 billion—according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The organization predicts 6.7 million people will suffer from the disease by 2025.

How does body weight impact the brain? No one knows yet if overeating actually causes memory loss and hazy thinking, but a growing body of research suggests that a high-calorie diet is hard on the brain, as it clearly is on the heart and kidneys.

And this isn’t just true of the elderly, a study in the August issue of Neurology finds. Researchers examined the connection between obesity and cognitive function in middle-aged people (an average age of 50). “Obesity, in mid rather than late life, is now an established risk factor for dementia,” explained study author Archana Singh-Manoux, research director of INSERM, a French research institute. In an email she added: “We looked at people who are obese and also have high blood pressure, high blood sugar and other risk factors called metabolic abnormalities, and found they experienced a faster decline in thinking, reasoning and memory over time.”

Other studies have found that excessive calories and a high intake of monounsaturated fats (found in meat, whole dairy products, nuts, and avocados) also predicted mild cognitive impairment.

The next step is to nail down specifics, including the influence of our genes: “We need to establish cause and effect between caloric intake and cognitive function so we can discover new methods of treatment,” noted Geda. “My speculation about the mechanism of action, based on the literature, is proteins known as neurotrophins that are critically important for development and maintenance of neurons in the hippocampus, which is an important structure for memory function.”

Other researchers are focused on targeting the specific components of metabolic syndrome—”bad” cholesterol or high blood sugar—to figure out how they affect memory.

Once researchers have those answers, appropriate medications can be prescribed to people with weight-connected memory loss, and in the future, researchers hope to come up with more specific, targeted drug therapies.

For now the prescription is familiar. “Cutting calories and eating foods that make up a healthy diet may be a simpler way to prevent memory loss as we age,” Geda advised. Research also suggests that managing cholesterol or sugar and the like may help slow down age-related memory loss and delay the onset of dementia.

Turns out the recommendation works: Obese people who lost 50 pounds in 12 weeks after their gastric bypass surgeries showed marked improvement in memory and organization skills, reported a 2011 Kent State study published in the journal Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases.

Losing weight traditionally is expected to have the same results, say the study’s authors, proving that a healthy weight is good for both body and brain.

Mary A. Fischer
Award-winning journalist and writer Mary A. Fischer, a former GQ senior writer, has covered crime, politics, and healthcare for GQ, The Atlantic, Men's Journal, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and O-Oprah.

More From Mary A. Fischer

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



July 18 • 4:00 PM

The Litany of Problems With the Pentagon’s Effort to Recover MIAs

A draft inspector general report found that the mission lacks basic metrics for how to do the job—and when to end it.


July 18 • 2:00 PM

Sure, the Jobs Are Back, but We Need a Lot More

We’re back to where we were before the 2008 recession, but there are now 12 million more people in the United States.


July 18 • 12:00 PM

What Are the Benefits of Government-Funded Research?

Congress wants to know.


July 18 • 10:31 AM

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?


July 18 • 10:00 AM

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.


July 18 • 9:48 AM

What Tech Talent Shortage? Microsoft Trims 18,000 Employees From Payroll

Like manufacturing before it, the Innovation Economy has reached a turning point, with jobs moving to places where labor is cheaper.


July 18 • 8:00 AM

The Academic of Comic Books

Kim O’Connor talks to Hillary Chute about comics as objects of criticism, the role of female cartoonists, and the art world’s evolving relationship with the form.


July 18 • 6:00 AM

The Supreme Court’s ‘Hobby Lobby’ Ruling Isn’t a Women’s Health Issue

It’s a private health issue. And it affects us all.


July 18 • 4:00 AM

‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ Comes Easier to the Danes

New research finds the closer a nation is to the genetic make-up of Denmark, the happier its citizens are.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.