Cambridge University research shows a link between overeating and poorer episodic memory.
Obesity already has negative effects on physical health and overall well-being. But new research suggests that excess weight can take a toll on brain as well and may cause poorer episodic memory or damage the ability to remember past experiences.
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Researchers from the University of Cambridge have found a link between obesity and poor memory. They suggest that high body mass index (BMI) may disrupt young adults’ ability to perform certain cognitive tasks at the best possible level.
In a small-scale study, researchers involved 50 participants aged 18-35 with body mass index ranging from 18 to 51. A BMI of 18-25 is considered healthy, 25-30 overweight and over 30 obese.
The memory of the participants was tested through “Treasure-Hunt Task”, where they were asked to hide items around complex scenes displayed on a computer over a set period of time.
Then, they were asked to recall which items they had hidden and when and where they had hidden them. People with higher body mass index in general performed poorer in the memory test, supporting the existing notion that obesity is associated with poorer memory.
Overweight and obesity is a growing problem. According to World Health Organization’s latest stats, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight in 2014. Of these 600 million were obese. Overall, the rate of obesity has doubled since 1980 and is expected to rise sharply in the coming decades.
“Understanding what drivers our consumption and how we instinctively regulate our eating behavior is becoming more and more important given the rise of obesity in the society,” said Dr Lucy Cheke, a psychologist at Cambridge University. “We tend to eat more when distracted by television or working and perhaps to ‘comfort eat’ when we are sad, for example.”
Obesity has an effect in particular on hippocampus, an area of brain linked to memory and learning which contributes in decision making, problem solving and shaping emotions. When people have poorer memory, they tend to forget recent meal they have taken. As a result, they eat more and gain more weight.
“Increasingly, we’re beginning to see that memory – especially episodic memory, the kind where you mentally relive a past event – is also important. How vividly we remember a recent meal, for example today’s lunch, can make a difference to how hungry we feel and how much we are likely to reach out for that tasty chocolate bar later on.” Cheke said.
“We’re not saying that overweight people are necessarily more forgetful. But if these results are generalizable to memory in everyday life, then it could be that overweight people are less able to vividly relive details of past events – such as their past meals. In other words, it is possible that becoming overweight may make it harder to keep track of what and how much you have eaten, potentially making your more likely to overeat.”
Researchers suggest that better understanding of the reasons of obesity can help eliminate the problem and can make a real difference to both physical and mental health and wellbeing.
The study was published in Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.