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Associations between elevated body mass index and cognitive functioning in adolescents

17 July 2014


In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that 18% of adolescents in the United States are obese. Emerging research has shown reduced neurocognitive functioning in adults with high body mass index (BMI) compared to normal-weight individuals, particularly in the areas of executive function and memory. Studies examining children and adolescents have also suggested reduced visual-spatial and executive functioning in those with high BMI; however, results have been somewhat equivocal. Adolescence is a critical period of brain development, such that adolescents with high BMI may show a unique pattern of neurocognitive impairment that differs from other stages of life. This study examined neurocognitive performance in obese (n = 31, BMI above 95th percentile) versus normal-weight adolescents (n = 31, BMI between 30th and 70th percentiles) on a brief battery of neuropsychological tasks, including tests of executive functioning (Delis-Kaplan Color-Word Inhibition and Switching tasks, Paced Auditory Serial Addition Task), speed of processing (Delis-Kaplan Color-Word Naming and Reading tasks), verbal memory (Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test), and estimated intelligence (Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence, 2-subscale). Independent samples t-tests confirmed no group differences in age, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status. Multivariate analysis of variance showed significant differences between groups on this battery (Wilks’ λ = .65, F 8,62 = 3.55, p < .05, partial η2 = 0.35). A significant univariate main effect for verbal memory was found (F 1,62 = 10.15, p < .006, partial η2 = 0.15). No other significant univariate main effects were observed. These results suggest obesity may be related to decreased verbal memory retrieval in adolescents. It is possible that obesity may impact frontal regions necessary for efficient memory retrieval – a finding not present until this critical stage of development.


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