Combine a big belly, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar levels and you have a metabolic mess capable of wreaking havoc on the heart.

Now a new study shows that this “metabolic syndrome” (search) can rob you of your memories, too.

The dramatic rise in obesity in the U.S. has made metabolic syndrome increasingly more common. According to the American Heart Association, an estimated 47 million adults have metabolic syndrome. Being overweight and physically inactivate are leading causes.

Researchers reporting in the Nov. 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association say elderly individuals with the metabolic syndrome have more memory problems and more decline in mental function than those who do not.

For the study, University of California, San Francisco, researcher Kristine Yaffe, MD, and colleagues evaluated the mental and physical health of 2,630 high-functioning elderly men and women whose average age was 74 at the start of this five-year study.

Researchers determined if metabolic syndrome was a risk for the development of Alzheimer's disease. (search)

The researchers also tested certain blood inflammatory markers to see if they affected the link between metabolic syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, the participants’ memory and concentration were tested.

Patients were re-evaluated at three and five years.

Yaffe’s team found that those with metabolic syndrome were 20 percent more likely to develop a decline in mental function compared with a group of elderly people without metabolic syndrome.

Decline in mental function was particularly pronounced in those with metabolic syndrome and high levels of blood inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein, which has been linked to heart disease and stroke.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to document that metabolic syndrome is associated with poor mental function,” the researchers write.

By Kelli Miller Stacy, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: American Heart Association. News release, Journal of the American Medical Association.