Metabolic Syndrome's Effect on Adolescents' Cognitive Function

Michelle Obama chose her role as first lady to increase physical fitness in children. Not only will this make kids physically healthy, but recent research indicates, it may make them mentally healthy.

While I am interested in the neuroscience of learning, the article I read this morning had a more personal impact. A doctor diagnosed me with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) sixteen years ago. Aside from its reproductive ramifications, PCOS is a disease that affects the endocrine system. The hormone imbalance causes hyperinsulinaemia meaning my body struggles to sensitize insulin. Yes, you could call me pre-diabetic, at risk for heart disease, and at risk for ovarian cancer. I definitely need to deal with my current obesity as it complicates my PCOS. Fortunately, though, my metabolic syndrome has not affected my cognitive skills. The same can't be said for today's obese children.

Metabolic Syndrome

I should clarify, I have not been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome involves co-morbidity (the existence of two or more diseases) that increase the risk for coronary artery disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Symptoms may include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, low HDL cholesterol, and high triglycerides.

Children and Metabolic Syndrome

Researchers have established that metabolic syndrome has detrimental effects on the cognition of adults assumed to be caused by long-term poor eating habits. The correlation of metabolic syndrome to children's cognitive abilities has not been studied in such detail. One reason for lack of studies in this area is children don't have the long-term poor eating habits that adults do. Likewise, previous studies involving cognitive detriment investigated children who already had type 2 diabetes.

The Study

The NYU School of Medicine compared 49 teenagers (14-20 years old) who met the criteria for metabolic syndrome without diabetes with 62 teenagers (14-20 years old) who did not meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome without diabetes. The average participant was in 11th grade. As a note, teenagers diagnosed with PCOS were not excluded from this study. The investigators used a comprehensive number of cognitive tests including an MRI, an intelligence assessment, an academic achievement test, a memory skills assessment, a depression evaluation, and a test for sleep apnea.

Results of the Study

While obesity showed a positive correlation to cognitive function, the demographic characteristics of the participants did not. The most significant difference between the metabolic syndrome teenagers and their non-metabolic syndrome peers was in the math scores, followed by spelling, IQ, attention, and mental flexibility. There were no significant differences between the groups in memory or motor skills. As this is one of the first studies evaluating cognitive function in adolescents who are, in essence, pre-diabetic, it cannot be said definitively that cognitive function is correlated with metabolic syndrome; however, this study does meet the qualifications of a quantitative study and can be used as a foundation for other studies.

My Analysis

As I said in my introduction, I am grateful that my metabolic disease has not hindered my cognitive abilities. I suppose one might argue that childhood obesity wasn't the significant epidemic that it is now. I argue that significance based on previous articles I've read and not on any factual data; it is possible I am an exception, but unfortunately, there exists no data to compare my generation as adolescents to today's adolescents using the same factors evaluated by the authors of this study. Rather, it is not known if the detriment to cognitive functions caused by metabolic syndrome has increased or remained the same over the past 21 years.

Articles for Reference

Yau, P. L., Castro, M. G., Tagani, A., Tsui, W. H., and Convit, A. (2012). Obesity and metabolic syndrome and functional and structural brain impairments in adolescence. Pediatrics, 130(4).

NYU Langone Medical Center. (2012). Obesity and metabolic syndrome associated with impaired brain function in adolescents. Newswise, Medicine.
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