As we age, the effects of obesity on cardiovascular disease and diabetes are well documented, but little is known about the impact of obesity on brain health. Ranjana Mehta, Ph.D., M.S., assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, hopes to change this with new research aimed at better understanding how obesity in seniors impacts their brain function.

Results from the three-year $347,527 study funded by the National Institute on Aging will help lead to interventions that will one-day improve seniors’ mobility and cognition.

“The alarming rate of increasing obesity in the elderly at a time of life already associated with progressive decline in neuromuscular function is disturbing,” Mehta said. “The objective of this project is to examine the impact of obesity and stress on neural activation patterns associated with upper and lower extremity neuromuscular function critical to important activities of daily living such as holding, grasping, balance and movement in adults 65 years or older.”

This project builds upon Mehta’s previous research studying the impact of obesity on neuromuscular fatigue and neural activity of the prefrontal and motor cortex, the parts of the brain that controls movement. For this study, Mehta will utilize a new technique known as functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), a non-invasive neuroimaging technique for monitoring brain activity during body movement. In addition, using biomarkers and structural imaging, this study will be one of the first to explore how obesity impacts brain health.

Obese and non-obese groups of volunteers 65 years or older will be recruited to participate in multiple sessions performing fatiguing exercises of their upper and lower extremity muscles. Additionally, Mehta plans to understand how psychological stress impacts physical functioning in this population.

“We expect that data obtained from the obese group will significantly differ from those obtained in the non-obese group, particularly under stress,” said Mehta. “Specifically, it is our expectation that burdening effects of obesity will be associated with altered brain activity.”

Additionally, Mehta hopes to better equip the next generation of public health professionals in multidisciplinary biomedical research by involving undergraduate students in this research study.

With approximately 40 percent of older adults being obese and the numbers increasing each year, this level of brain function analysis that has not previously been studied is extremely important.

“Promoting brain health is an important public health goal. Through this study we hope to improve therapeutic/preventive strategies aimed at enhancing brain, and subsequent physical and mental health for the growing number of obese elderly Americans,” Mehta said.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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