Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have shown in a new study that fat tissue function is key to ensuring health as we age.

The new research is further evidence of the fact that it’s not just a question of how much fat you carry, but how well it functions, that will determine whether or not you’re healthy.

Rather than just being an inert “store” of calories, fat is active tissue which carries out all sorts of important metabolic and hormonal functions. As these functions become impaired, so does our health.

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Fat function: essential to long-term health


“Overall health is closely linked with how well our fat tissue functions. In the past, we regarded fat as an energy depot. In fact, fat is an organ that interacts with other organs and can optimize metabolic function. Among other things, fat tissue releases substances that affect muscle and brain metabolism when we feel hungry and much more. So, it’s important that fat tissue works the way it should,” explains Assistant Professor Anders Gudiksen of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Biology.

The researchers focused on the role of mitochondria in fat tissue. Mitochondria generate energy from the food we eat, and are often referred to as the body’s “power plants”. As you might imagine, in order to be healthy, these power plants need to be functioning properly.

The researchers compared the mitochondrial performance of a number of participants of various ages. While some of the men exercised habitually, a second group were “moderate exercisers,” and a third wasn’t very active at all. The team considered all the participants healthy, though. None of them were on medication and displayed a BMI below 30.

Increased body fat associated with cognitive decline, new study

A new study has found that the more body fat you have, the more likely you are to suffer from reduced cognitive function.

Even when the researchers took into account cardiovascular risk factors like diabetes or high blood pressure or vascular brain injury, the link between body fat and lower cognitive scores remained.

We already know myriad ways in which being overweight is bad for you, but this new study throws into sharp relief the wisdom of the ancients when they said, “mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body.

In the study, just over 9000 participants had their body fat measured using bioelectrical impedance analysis.

Nearly 7000 of the participants then underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure levels of abdominal fat packed around the organs known as visceral fat. The MRI also assessed areas in the brain affected by reduced blood flow to the brain, otherwise known as vascular brain injury.

Cognitive function was assessed using the Digital Symbol Substitution Test (DSST; scores range from 0 to 133, with lower scores indicating lower cognitive function) and Montreal Cognitive Assessment (scores range from 0 to 30, with a score of ≥26 denoting normal cognitive function). 

Click here to read more about this fascinating new study

The results showed that mitochondria gradually lose their ability to produce energy with age, regardless of a person’s exercise habits. However, the researchers note that exercise does seem to offer a “powerful compensatory effect.”

“Although mitochondrial function decreases with age, we can see that a high level of lifelong exercise exerts a powerful compensatory effect. In the group of well-trained older men, fat cells are able to respire more than twice as much as in untrained older men,” Prof. Gudiksen explains.

At the same time as creating energy, mitochondria also produce a harmful byproduct in the form of oxygen free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS). A poor balance between ROS and antioxidants can harm cells. Indeed, many doctors and scientists theorize that high ROS levels have a link to a number of health issues such as cancer, diabetes, dementia, and heart disease. Being able to manage ROS levels therefore seems to be another key factor at work here.

“The group of older people who train most form less ROS and maintain functionality to eliminate it. Indeed, their mitochondria are better at managing waste produced in fat cells, which results in less damage. Therefore, exercise has a large effect on maintaining the health of fat tissue, and thereby probably keeping certain diseases at bay as well,” Prof. Gudiksen adds.

Older study participants who exercised for most of their lives had more mitochondria overall, which helped them produce more energy and also allowed them an increased capacity to release more of the fat-related hormones integral to the human body’s balance of energy.

“Our results show that you can actually train your fat tissue to a very high degree – but that you needn’t cycle 200km a week to achieve a positive effect. What you shouldn’t do, is do nothing at all,” Prof. Gudiksen concludes.

Next the team wants to start focusing on determining where exactly cellular damage takes place when people shun physical activity, and also to evaluate the overall impact such developments have on the body over time.

The researchers caution that these specific findings should ultimately be considered “conservative estimates,” because the participants were all in good health and not taking medications, meaning they were not an accurate representation of the general public.

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