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You've heard the message: Having a bulging belly can be detrimental to your health. Extra weight around the midsection is known to increase one's risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and early death. Now a new study, published today in the journal Neurology, suggests that having a larger belly in middle age may increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
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The new study, which was based on data from more than 6,500 members of Kaiser Permanente in California, shows that "where you carry weight, more [so] than your total body weight, is a good predictor of dementia," says lead author Rachel Whitmer, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente. "You can have a healthy body mass index but have a risk of dementia due to belly fat." Study participants were ages 40 to 45 when they entered the study between 1964 and 1973, and some were followed until 2006, when they were as old as 87.
Fifty percent of adults have "central obesity," or fat that has accumulated around their midsections, according to the new study. So what can you do to get rid of the extra weight? U.S. News asked Whitmer and Robert Reames, a Los Angeles-based personal trainer and nutritionist for the Gold's Gym Fitness Institute, for advice on how to reduce a bulging stomach.
• Know where you stand. If you're obese or overweight, "you really should get an idea of where you're carrying that weight," Whitmer advises. And remember, you're not out of the woods if you have a normal body weight. Even those with normal weight who carry extra fat in their bellies were shown to have an increased risk for dementia.
To figure out how much belly fat you have, use a tape measure to size up your midsection. Pull the tape measure around your tummy at about the level of your navel. Breathe normally and don't suck your stomach in while measuring. In women with a healthy weight, a belly circumference of 35 inches or more represents an unhealthy amount of belly fat, though some research suggests that even a girth of 33 or 34 inches is risky. In men, the risk for chronic disease goes up with a belly size of 40 inches or more, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic.
• Exercise regularly. "Get out there and move," Reames suggests, but don't assume that you can reduce your belly fat without working on the rest of your body. "Work out comprehensively... Put the focus on major muscle groups," he says. The good news, according to the Mayo Clinic, is that when people move more and eat less, belly fat is the first kind of fat to go.
• Eat healthfully. "Stay with whole, lean, natural foods," Reames says. Read nutrition labels and opt for polyunsaturated fats in place of saturated fats. Up your intake of complex carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables, and reduce the amount of simple carbohydrates like pasta and white bread in your diet. And, if you need to lose weight, reduce portion sizes and calorie intake.
• Get plenty of rest. Sleep deprivation is no good for your body and may contribute to a bulging belly, Reames says. Aim for eight to nine hours of shut-eye each night.