People with substantial waistlines may run an elevated risk of cognitive decline as they age, scientists reported Tuesday in one of the most ambitious attempts yet to link obesity and mental health.

A study led by Dr. Kristine Yaffe, an associate professor at UCSF and chief of geriatric psychiatry at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, is the first to suggest cognitive effects from what is known as metabolic syndrome.



Wide girth about the middle is the syndrome’s most obvious trait, accompanied by high blood pressure and unhealthy levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose in the blood.



The syndrome is a well-known risk factor for cardiovascular disease that is seen in about 1 in 4 adults in the United States, and 40 percent of those older than age 40.



The new study, which appears in the latest Journal of the American Medical Association, shows the aging brain also may be affected if one is an “apple-shaped person,” Yaffe said in an interview.



“Now we know that metabolic syndrome is not just bad for your heart. It’s also bad for your brain,” Yaffe said.



She and her colleagues tracked for five years about 2,600 people with an average age of 74 at community clinics in Pittsburgh and Memphis.



About 26 percent of those with the metabolic syndrome showed “significant cognitive decline” on standard neurological tests, compared with only 21 percent of study participants without the syndrome.



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