Metabolic Syndrome and Mental Decline: Is Exercise A Feasible Prevention?

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).

obesity1Concurrently, 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 stk327235rknthe 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 She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.

Healthy Food Choices and Safety: Can You Have It All?

That was the question that stuck with me most after leaving the paper session “Influences on Healthy Eating Decisions.”

163118519According to the research led by Anthony G. Salerno, PhD, feeling safe may encourage people to eat larger amounts of unhealthy foods, outside of their awareness. “Feelings of safety increase people’s perception that they are protected from danger, which consequently decreases their sensitivity to harmful behaviors,” he said. Unhealthy eating is one of them, and can lead to harmful consequences. When people feel safe, they are less sensitive to these harmful consequences and are more likely to consume unhealthy foods, which can lead to weight gain and obesity.

This implies that our environment can play a crucial role in our determination of adhering to a healthy eating pattern. However, does that mean that you should move to an unsafe neighborhood to shed the pounds more easily? I’d say not so fast.

I caught up with Dr. Salerno this week, and here is what he had to say:

“While it obviously would not be a good idea for people to start seeking out harmful environments, I do think people may benefit from being mindful of the fact that just because they are in a safe environment, it does not mean that this protects them from their own unsafe behaviors. In general, it is of great importance to a person’s psychological well-being that they feel safe. However, people should also be mindful of the fact that feeling safe can sometimes increase our willingness to engage in behaviors with potentially harmful consequences (in this case the consumption of unhealthy food). So by simply being aware of the influence of safety on our behavior, we are more likely to undermine the undesirable consequences it has on us.”

122401671Stress is also linked to overeating, weight gain and obesity. The evidence that feeling safe may be a contributing factor when it comes to food choices and weight makes me wonder, where is the balance between the two when it comes to eating healthy? Constant stress can lead to suboptimal food choices, but so can the feeling of safety, according to Salerno. So does a golden mean between how we feel on a regular basis regarding our safety, and how much (as well as how healthy) we eat even exist?

While this may be more of a philosophical question, I think that it might be the intensity of the feelings that prompts the consumption of unhealthy foods. In other words, feeling very secure and at ease, as well as feeling very stressed, could be leading to overeating and weight gain. It is also important to recognize other behaviors and feelings that accompany feeling safe or stressed, which can also be contributors to unhealthy eating.

After all, eating is much more than merely satisfying hunger. We eat in response to a variety of emotions, both positive and negative. It is thus essential to recognize our feelings that trigger eating and overeating. Once eating triggers are identified, further steps can be taken to break the emotional eating habit and adopt a healthier eating pattern, which in turn can help reduce overweight and obesity.

Have more thoughts on this topic? Reply below. Dr. Salerno is also happy to answer questions via email. You can reach him at

Nicole Avena, PhD studies appetite and addiction at the NY Obesity Research Center, at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.

Psychologists Can Do More to Prevent Metabolic Syndrome

We all know that America’s sedentary behaviors and love of fast food are undermining our health, but are we aware of just how much it’s hurting the next generation? Speakers at a session Thursday on the impact of metabolic syndrome shared some staggering findings:

  • Children as young as 5 are now showing signs of metabolic syndrome.
  • One-third of all American kids are overweight, as are close to 30 percent of children ages 2 to 5.
  • 50 percent of children who are obese at age 7 remain obese as adults.

57567393“The statistics are scary, but they are modifiable,” said Alan Delamater, PhD, of the University of Miami. “Psychologists are in the business of changing behaviors.”
Now more than ever, psychologists need to step up their efforts to prevent metabolic syndrome, he and other presenters said. Characterized by such factors as excess abdominal fat, high blood pressure and low HDL (good) cholesterol, metabolic syndrome increases the risk for stroke, diabetes, heart disease and possibly even cognitive impairment, the speakers said.

Research has shown that physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight are key to preventing the syndrome — behaviors that psychologists are well-equipped to help their clients with. But psychologists also need to help change the culture. To make a real difference, said Delamater, we need public policy changes, such as curbing the food industry’s marketing to children and ensuring schools offer daily physical education.

“You can’t just look at one system,” said Dawn Wilson, PhD of the University of South Carolina-Columbia. “You have to look at all of them.”