Metabolic syndrome (MetS) “is an example of a health variable that may play a causal role in cognitive and language declines with age,” Avron Spiro III, PhD, said at a symposium Aug. 7 at the convention.
A constellation of five interrelated risk factors (a large waistline, a high triglyceride level, a low HDL cholesterol level, high blood pressure and high fasting blood sugar; three are needed to be diagnosed with MetS), MetS is known to increase an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes. Recent research has also linked cardiovascular and metabolic declines to decreases in different cognitive abilities among older adults, showing reduced cognitive speed, executive functions, memory, and language functioning (i.e., word finding, sentence processing).
Concurrently, we also know the lack of physical activity is closely linked to metabolic syndrome, and that regular exercise can help to control weight, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers, and improve many aspects of mental health, including cognitive decline. Due to the indisputable evidence of the physical and mental health benefits, 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity is recommended five days a week. However, less than half of American adults meet this recommendation, and less than 15 percent perform regular vigorous physical activity.
Pretty gloomy statistics, right? As Edmund Acevedo, PhD, said, “although physical activity is important in decreasing the risk of having metabolic syndrome, it is clear that the challenge lies in increasing physical activity.”
A good example is physical education classes in public schools. Many schools do not have enough gym teachers, gyms (or both), or have cut out gym classes because of increasing educational demands. Children and adolescents need even more regular exercise than adults – at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity every day.
More than a third of U.S. children overweight or obese today, which puts them at risk of developing a whole spectrum of diseases, metabolic syndrome included. It is thus essential, in my opinion, to start the prevention of overweight and obesity as early as possible as a preventive measure for MetS and the physical and mental decline that accompanies it later in life.
And while the questions of who is going to do it, when, and who is going to pay for it are essential, one thing is clear – people must reach the recommended physical activity levels starting at the earliest age possible, and continue throughout the school years. State legislatures and departments of education should therefore instigate or strengthen the physical education policies (and before- and after-school policies) to meet these goals. Once that is achieved, we can hope that the regular exercise habits adopted in school continue through adulthood, and lead to better health, physical and psychological.
Nicole Avena, PhD studies appetite and addiction at the NY Obesity Research Center, at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at DrNicoleAvena.com. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.