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Hidden belly fat could signal Alzheimer’s disease risk 15 years before symptoms show up, study finds

Even if you can’t see it, fat buried deep within the belly can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

That’s according to research released by the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) on Monday.

Visceral fat, which surrounds the internal organs in the belly, has been linked to brain changes that could point to future dementia in people as young as 50, up to 15 years before symptoms appear, as noted in a press release from RSNA.

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The findings, published in the journal Aging and Disease, will be presented at the RSNA’s annual meeting next week.

Researchers analyzed the brain MRIs and PET scans of 54 “cognitively healthy” participants between the ages of 40 and 60, focusing on any inflammation and “plaques and tangles” that are typically seen in Alzheimer’s patients. 

They also assessed the middle-aged adults’ body mass index (BMI), obesity levels, blood glucose and abdominal fatty tissue.

“Even though there have been other studies linking BMI with brain atrophy or even a higher dementia risk, no prior study has linked a specific type of fat to the actual Alzheimer’s disease protein in cognitively normal people,” said study author Mahsa Dolatshahi, M.D., post-doctoral research fellow with the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology (MIR) at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, in the release. 

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“Similar studies have not investigated the differential role of visceral and subcutaneous fat, especially in terms of Alzheimer’s amyloid pathology, as early as midlife.”

The researchers found that those with more visceral fat also had higher levels of amyloid in the precuneus cortex, which is the region of the brain that usually shows the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease. 

They also had greater inflammation in the brain.

Men were more likely to show this correlation than women.

“We found the hidden fat-Alzheimer biomarker connection in persons at midlife — 40s and 50s — on average 15 years before the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s typically appear,” Raji added.

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Visceral fat may also lead to inflammation in the brain, one of the main mechanisms that contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, according to the researchers.

Looking ahead, the hope is that these findings can be a springboard to new targeted treatments.

“We found the hidden fat-Alzheimer biomarker connection in persons at midlife — 40s and 50s — on average 15 years before the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s typically appear,” Raji added.

Visceral fat may also lead to inflammation in the brain, one of the main mechanisms contributing to Alzheimer’s disease, according to the researchers.

Looking ahead, the hope is that these findings can be a springboard to new targeted treatments.

“By moving beyond body mass index in better characterizing the anatomical distribution of body fat on MRI, we now have a uniquely better understanding of why this factor may increase risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Raji.

Dr. Marc Siegel, clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center and a Fox News medical contributor, was not involved in the study but said the findings aligned with his expectations. 

“This is because belly fat is filled with inflammation,” he told Fox News Digital.

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“Cytokines and interleukin 6 (inflammatory proteins) not only lead to heart disease, but there is increasing evidence that this inflammation also leads to neurodegenerative disease and poor brain cell function, and can accelerate Alzheimer’s,” Siegel added. 

“This study reinforces that association.”

The main limitation of the research is the small sample size and the fact that it’s a cross-sectional study, Raji noted.

“We are recruiting more participants for this study and want to do a longitudinal version of this work in the future,” he said.

The hope is that the research will help to raise awareness that body and brain health are linked, Raji added.

More than six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. 

This number is expected to approach 13 million by 2050. 

One in every five women and one out of 10 men will develop the common form of dementia in their lifetime.

For more Health articles, visit www.foxnews.com/health.

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