Patterns of adiposity, vascular phenotypes and cognitive function in the 1946 British Birth Cohort

BMC Med. 2018 May 28;16(1):75. doi: 10.1186/s12916-018-1059-x.


Background: The relationship between long-term exposure to whole body or central obesity and cognitive function, as well as its potential determinants, remain controversial. In this study, we assessed (1) the potential impact of 30 years exposure to different patterns of whole body and central adiposity on cognitive function at 60-64 years, (2) whether trajectories of central adiposity can provide additional information on later cognitive function compared to trajectories of whole body adiposity, and (3) the influence of vascular phenotypes on these associations.

Methods: The study included 1249 participants from the prospective cohort MRC National Survey of Health and Development. Body mass index (BMI), waist circumference (WC), and vascular (carotid intima-media thickness, carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity) and cognitive function (memory, processing speed, reaction time) data, at 60-64 years, were used to assess the associations between different patterns of adult WC or BMI (from 36 years of age) and late midlife cognitive performance, as well as the proportion of this association explained by cardiovascular phenotypes.

Results: Longer exposure to elevated WC was related to lower memory performance (p < 0.001 for both) and longer choice reaction time (p = 0.003). A faster gain of WC between 36 and 43 years of age was associated with the largest change in reaction time and memory test (P < 0.05 for all). Similar associations were observed when patterns of WC were substituted with patterns of BMI, but when WC and BMI were included in the same model, only patterns of WC remained significantly associated with cognitive function. Participants who dropped one BMI category and maintained a lower BMI had similar memory performance to those of normal weight during the whole follow-up. Conversely, those who dropped and subsequently regained one BMI category had a memory function similar to those with 30 years exposure to elevated BMI. Adjustment for vascular phenotypes, levels of cardiovascular risk factors, physical activity, education, childhood cognition and socioeconomic position did not affect these associations.

Conclusions: Longer exposure to elevated WC or BMI and faster WC or BMI gains between 36 and 43 years are related to lower cognitive function at 60-64 years. Patterns of WC in adulthood could provide additional information in predicting late midlife cognitive function than patterns of BMI. The acquisition of an adverse cardiovascular phenotype associated with adiposity is unlikely to account for these relationships.

Keywords: Obesity; cognitive function; lifetime risk; vascular phenotypes; waist circumference.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adiposity / ethnology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • England / epidemiology
  • Female
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / complications*
  • Phenotype*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Waist Circumference / ethnology*