Aging-related changes in fluid intelligence, muscle and adipose mass, and sex-specific immunologic mediation: A longitudinal UK Biobank study

Brain Behav Immun. 2019 Nov;82:396-405. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2019.09.008. Epub 2019 Sep 9.


Background: Obesity in midlife and early late-life is associated with worse normal cognitive aging. Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) suggests that visceral adipose mass (VAM) plays a predominant role, whereas non-visceral adipose mass (NVAM) and lean muscle mass (LMM) have shown conflicting relationships. It is unknown how longitudinal, cognitive changes in age-sensitive domains like fluid intelligence (FI) correspond to VAM, NVAM, and LMM in women and men. Furthermore, changes over time in blood leukocyte sub-populations may partially or fully account for sex-specific associations.

Methods: Data on 4431 late middle-aged, cognitively unimpaired adults (mean = 64.5 y) was obtained from the UK Biobank prospective cohort across 22 centers. FI scores, blood leukocyte counts, and covariates (age, social class, education) were measured at three 2-year intervals over 6 years. DEXA collection overlapped with these intervals. Sex-stratified growth curves, structural equations, and Preacher-Hayes mediation were used to estimate direct and indirect effects. β-weights were standardized.

Results: More LMM predicted gains in FI scores among women (β = 0.130, p < .001) and men (β = 0.089, p < .001). Conversely, more VAM and NVAM independently predicted FI decline equally among sexes (e.g., NVAM: women: β = -0.082, p < .001; men: β = -0.076, p < .001). Among women, FI associations were fully mediated by higher eosinophil counts via VAM (λ = 30.8%, p = .028) and lower lymphocyte counts via LMM (λ = 69.2%, p = .021). Among men, FI associations were partially mediated by lower basophils counts via LMM (λ = 4.5%, p = .042) and higher counts via VAM (λ = 50%, p = .037).

Conclusion: The proportion of LMM and VAM equally influenced male FI changes over 6 years, whereas higher LMM among women appeared to more strongly influence. FI changes. Leukocyte counts strongly mediated VAM- and LMM-related FI changes in a sex-specific manner, but not for NVAM. For clinical translation, exercise studies in older adults may benefit from assessing sex-specific values of DEXA-based tissue mass, FI, and leukocyte sub-populations to gauge potential cognitive benefits of less VAM and more LMM.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adiposity / physiology
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Biological Specimen Banks
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intelligence / physiology*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Obesity / physiopathology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Sex Factors
  • United Kingdom