March 27, 2008
A study reported in the journal, Neurology, finds a possible link between excess belly fat and the risk of dementia. While the research did not look specifically at people living with HIV, it raises specific concerns for them.
The researchers looked at over 6,000 people who had their belly fat measured in the 1960s and 70s. At that time people were in their 40s and 50s. As of 2006, almost 16% of them were diagnosed with some form of dementia. When controlled for known risk factors, the rate of dementia was 2.7 times higher in people with the most belly fat compared to those with the least.
People tend to carry different types of fat in different parts their bodies. Excess fat beneath the skin (subcutaneous) tends to accumulate in the buttocks, hips and thighs. In contrast, visceral fat accumulates under the abdominal muscles around the internal organs of the gut.
Visceral fat has been linked to various health problems, notably heart disease. This study found a strong connection between excess visceral fat and dementia, though the reason for the link is not known. Some think that visceral fat may accumulate and produce toxins. Others note that the fat is tightly wrapped around vital organs and might interfere with their normal function.
Whatever the explanation, this finding may be important for some people with HIV. Buildup of visceral fat has been linked to both HIV disease and treatments that combat it, as part of the syndrome called lipodystrophy or HIV-Associated Adipose Redistribution Syndrome (HARS). More cases of early onset dementia and cognitive impairment are being reported in people with HIV. This study may assist doctors and researchers attempting to understand this growing problem in people with HIV.
As people live longer with HIV disease, conditions related to older age become increasingly important. The New York Times created a bit of a buzz recently when they ran a story on HIV and aging, which painted a bleak picture of life for older people with HIV. While the story was open to criticism, many doctors and advocates are sounding the alarm that people with HIV appear to suffer from age-related diseases earlier than HIV-negative people.
Project Inform welcomes the attention being paid to these emerging issues. We call for more research to both understand and develop strategies to deal with the consequences of aging and HIV.
For more information on AIDS-related dementia, read Project Inform's publication, "AIDS Dementia Complex."