Obesity raises risk of dementia: here’s how to stay trim in any decade

A new study shows that outsmarting weight gain can keep your mind sharp in later life
As we age our metabolic rate can slow down, making it harder to lose weightAs we age our metabolic rate can slow down, making it harder to lose weight
As we age our metabolic rate can slow down, making it harder to lose weight

Researchers from Columbia University studied data on more than 5,000 adults and found that people who are overweight may be more prone to dementia in later life. The study revealed that those aged 20 to 49 who have a high body mass index are up to 2.5 times as likely to go on to develop dementia.

Dr Rosa Sancho, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “[The] study links a higher BMI in early adulthood with an increased risk of dementia later in life and underlines the importance of maintaining a healthy weight to help support a healthy brain.”

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Just as your body changes over time, so too do the strategies that can help you to stay trim and healthy. We asked health experts to give us decade-specific tips for fighting fat and keeping your BMI within a healthy weight range.

1. In your 20s, you should… cut out the liquid calories

No matter how virtuous you are with your diet, binge drinking at the weekend can contribute to weight gain and obesity, as well as putting you at risk of long-term health issues, like high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

“Your 20s are generally a time for socialising. It’s when many youngsters have left home, have started out on their career path and are meeting up with friends at the pub,” says Rob Hobson, head of nutrition for Healthspan (healthspan.co.uk).

He continues: “Alcohol is a diet hijacker and can lead to rapid weight gain.” For instance, a standard pint of beer contains 239 calories, and a 175ml glass of wine contains 133, according to NHS figures.

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“A simple solution is to water down drinks and look for sugar-free, non-alcohol alternatives. I’d particularly recommend avoiding sugary mixers, as these can be loaded with hidden calories,” Hobson adds. A leading brand of tonic, for example, contains 10 times the calories of its slimline version.

Then, set an exercise intention. While exercise alone won’t seal the deal for weight loss, adding it into your weight-loss plan alongside a healthy, balanced diet can go a long way. Plus, making regular physical activity a part of your routine when you’re young can help form the habit into a lifetime intention.

Your 20s also are a time when your body is most forgiving, giving you the opportunity to push yourself without worrying as much about the aches and pains that may come later (and often derail our exercise routines).

Also, start to think long term. In 2012, a landmark study came out and revealed to us what we most likely already knew: The eating pattern you chose to adopt in your 20s had a huge impact on disease risk once you became middle-aged. Most 20-somethings don’t have cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancer or type 2 diabetes on their minds. But perhaps if they did, they would focus more on protecting their health when their cells need it most.

2. In your 30s, you should… opt for low-fat alternatives

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When you were 23, you might have been able to survive on a diet of takeaway foods and still comfortably slip into your jeans, but now, it will probably take a little bit of extra work to stay slim.

“Lots of people are focused on losing weight in their 30s,” observes Hobson. “It could be that you’re trying to lose some post-pregnancy weight, or just that your metabolism has gradually slowed down over time.”

Hobson says that the key in this age bracket is to build a slow and steady approach to weight loss – “utilising simple changes is the best way to lose weight, rather than crash diets”, he notes.

His top tips are to switch to low-fat options and swap to whole grain foods, to reduce your sugar intake.

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“In your 30s, it’s also a good idea to learn a few basic meal-planning strategies, or quick healthy meals that you know you love,” adds David Wiener, training specialist at Freeletics (freeletics.com). “This can help you minimise food prep time and maximise the nutrient-rich foods that keep you lean and boost your energy – even when you’re on the go.”

And if you’ve never stepped foot on a treadmill before, it’s probably a good time to invest in a gym membership. “You might start to notice small changes to your body that weren’t there in your 20s, so think about reaping the toning benefits of exercising more, especially if you generally live a sedentary lifestyle,” adds Hobson.

Meal planning for weight loss is one of those routines that you need to establish when you are losing weight after 30. Set aside one day each week to shop for healthy food, prepare meals for the whole week, and set up your refrigerator with healthy snacks. You can even schedule your workout sessions. Ask family members to help make this habit a priority.

3. In your 40s, you should...have healthy snacks on hand

There is a multitude of reasons for weight gain after age 40. Some are genetic, some are the natural course of things, and some are due to lifestyle choices.

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The four most important contributors to weight gain include:

Hormones: One of the main culprits for weight gain is, of course, our hormones, which start to change right around the mid-30s and into the 40s. This change in hormones, less estrogen for women and less testosterone for men, cause the fat in our bodies to shift to the middle of the body.

Heredity: Scientists have found the specific genes that determine how many fat cells we have and where they’re stored.

Lower metabolism: There are a couple of things that happen to your metabolism after the age of 40. First, your basal metabolic rate (BMR) decreases and, second, you expend less total energy (TEE) during exercise.

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Loss of muscle: Like our metabolisms, we also start to lose muscle when we hit our 40s, experiencing a steady decline each decade. The biggest factor in losing muscle is the lack of physical activity, which makes exercise a crucial component when it comes to preventing muscle loss.

Juggling family life and more career responsibilities can cause stress for many people in their 40s, warns Hobson, who adds: “This is often a time when we’re more likely to turn to comfort or emotional eating, to deal with the pressures of big life changes.”

His solution is to keep healthy snacks in your kitchen, such as nuts, seeds, fruits and chopped vegetables, so you won’t be tempted by sugary cakes and biscuits – which are fine in moderation, but add little nutritional value to your diet. Because we’re spending a lot more time at home at the moment, it can be easy to snack more than usual, so why not use your recouped commuting time to prep some homemade cupboard staples?

“Alongside a healthier diet, I’d recommend finding strategies to manage the stress and anxiety that leads to comfort eating,” says Hobson. This could be taking time to exercise, getting enough restful sleep, cutting down on alcohol or trying wellbeing tools, like meditation and yoga.

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Despite those changes, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to weight loss in your 40s. Losing weight may just require some new techniques you haven’t had to use before, or slight tweaks to power up your old ones.

To jumpstart your weight loss, the biggest focus should be to develop habits that will help you build or maintain your muscle mass. “The most effective way that women over 40 can boost their metabolism is by building muscle through weight-lifting and resistance training,” says Dr Keri Peterson, MD, Women’s Health advisor. But nutrition and sleep habits also play a role here.

Eat when you’re hungry, not starved—and stop when you are satisfied, not stuffed. Try to include small, frequent meals that are high in protein and vegetables with a small amount of healthy fat.

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