MONTREAL — For all of modern medicine’s awe inspiring advancements over the past few decades, there’s still no getting around the simple fact that we’re all growing just a little bit older each day. The hands of time wait for no one, but according to a new study conducted at Concordia University, those hands are moving faster for obese individuals.
The research team say that obesity is essentially the same phenomenon as premature aging. Older individuals routinely experience cognition problems, weakened immune systems, increased risk of cancer, diabetes, heart problems, and Alzheimer’s, as well as compromised genomes. Obese individuals are predisposed to all of those conditions as well.
To come to their conclusions, the research team analyzed over 200 previous papers that had investigated the effects of obesity on the human body. Over the course of their work, the study’s authors were able to look into obesity’s effects from a broad spectrum; ranging from its influence on a cellular level to its effect on the entire body as whole.
“We are trying to comprehensively make the argument that obesity parallels aging,” explains Sylvia Santosa, a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Clinical Nutrition, in a release. “Indeed, the mechanisms by which the comorbidities of obesity and aging develop are very similar.”
Obesity has long been linked to a higher risk of premature death, but this study discovered that even on “the lowest levels inside the human body” obesity actively speeds up the natural aging process.
More specifically, obesity’s effects on the processes of cell death (apoptosis) and cell maintenance (autophagy) were analyzed. Both of these processes are viewed as essential ingredients in the human aging cycle. A good deal of prior animal research has linked obesity-induced apoptosis to mice hearts, livers, kidneys, retinas, neurons, and inner ears withering away before they normally would in a healthy mouse. Also, obesity is known to prevent cell maintenance, which can have widespread detrimental effects on the body leading to cancer, heart problems, dementia, or diabetes.
Additionally, obesity interferes with the natural course of aging on a genetic level. Excessive weight can shorten the protective caps on chromosomes called telomeres. Telomeres observed in obese individuals can be up to 25% shorter than in people of average weight.
The immune system ages more rapidly in obese individuals by targeting certain immune cells. Making matters worse, even losing weight sometimes doesn’t reverse this phenomenon. Of course, a weakened immune system means obese people are also at a greater risk of contracting diseases like influenza.
Santosa says she was inspired to conduct this study after noticing just how many obese children were developing health problems largely associated with older adults.
“I ask people to list as many comorbidities of obesity as they can,” Santosa says. “Then I ask how many of those comorbidities are associated with aging. Most people will say, all of them. There is certainly something that is happening in obesity that is accelerating our aging process.’”
She’s hopeful her work will motivate more people to get in better shape and realize that obesity is far more than just a cosmetic or purely appearance-based problem.
“I’m hoping that these observations will focus our approach to understanding obesity a little more, and at the same time allow us to think of obesity in different ways. We’re asking different types of questions than that which have traditionally been asked,” she concludes.
The study is published in Obesity Reviews.