Olivia Judson: Obesity, Brain Damage, & Creationism

Dr. Olivia Judson

Dr. Olivia Judson

ONCE more, dear reader, it is our delight to discuss a column by the splendidly-evolved Olivia Judson — an evolutionary biologist and a research fellow in biology at Imperial College London. This article, part of Dr. Judson’s series in the New York Times, is titled: Brain Damage. Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

Being fat is bad for your brain.

That, at least, is the gloomy conclusion of several recent studies. For example, one long-term study of more than 6,500 people in northern California found that those who were fat around the middle at age 40 were more likely to succumb to dementia in their 70s. A long-term study in Sweden found that, compared to thinner people, those who were overweight in their 40s experienced a more rapid, and more pronounced, decline in brain function over the next several decades.

There must be a creationism connection here somewhere. But even if there isn’t, who cares? We’re discussing a column by Olivia, so let’s read on:

A study of 114 middle-aged people (aged between 40 and 66) found that the obese tended to have smaller, more atrophied brains than thinner people; other studies have found similar results. Brains usually atrophy with age, but being obese appears to accelerate the process. This is bad news: pronounced brain atrophy is a feature of dementia.

A study of 114 people — how significant is that? Anyway, we continue:

Why fatness should affect the brain in this way is not clear, although a host of culprits have been suggested. A paper published this week in the early edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has identified a gene that seems to be involved. FTO, as the gene is known, appears to play a role in both body weight and brain function. This gene comes in different versions; one version — let’s call it “troublesome” — appears to predispose people to obesity.


Whatever the causes, the implications are grave. In the United States today, around one-third of adults are obese.

Inspired by Olivia, your Curmudgeon has launched his own investigation. First, we found this country-by-country graph about obesity. As Olivia says, in the US it’s a bit over 30%. Then we found this graph about acceptance of evolution, country by country. The US is at the top on obesity and the bottom on evolution. Think about that.

There isn’t a perfectly inverse relationship for every country, but there are tantalizing data points. Japan, for instance, is the opposite of the US; it’s near the top on evolution and the bottom on obesity. Greece, like the US, is near the top on obesity and near the bottom on evolution. We’d like to see what the results would be if individuals were surveyed for both obesity and creationism in the same questionnaire.

Until such studies are conducted, we have only data gathered in separate surveys on separate topics — but the data are suggestive. That leads us to boldly proclaim: The Curmudgeon’s Conjecture of a Causal Connection between Corpulence and Creationism. We humbly credit Olivia for providing the inspiration.

Okay, moving along with her column:

The obvious question is: can obesity-associated brain damage be reversed? No one knows the answer, but I am hopeful that it can. Those two old friends, a healthful diet and plenty of exercise, have repeatedly been shown to protect the brain. Foods like oily fishes and blueberries have been shown to stimulate the growth of new neurons, for example.

Perhaps, if the gods are kind, one day Olivia and your Curmudgeon will dine on some blueberries, followed by a healthful session of neuron-stimulating exercise. [** Pause **] We’d best wrap this up now, before we get carried away.

Click over to the New York Times and read the whole column. You might also visit our Table of Contents to see our other articles about Olivia. But we’re not obsessed. No, of course not.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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10 responses to “Olivia Judson: Obesity, Brain Damage, & Creationism

  1. The Curmudgeon’s Conjecture of a Causal Connection between Corpulence and Creationism?

    Brilliant, as usual.

    The correlation (I think causation is a premature exclamation) is rather tantalizing, any researcher obsessiveness notwithstanding.

    Hmm… a meme with biological costs or a biology susceptible to the creationist meme? Let us hope Dr Judson keeps us abreast of her further developments.

  2. tildeb says:

    Let us hope Dr Judson keeps us abreast of her further developments.

    I hope that she eagerly embraces my hypothesis.

  3. Tantalising as the CCCCCC Theory may be, it seems less compelling to those of us in the UK, which bucks your reported trend (we are a nation of fairly corpulent Darwinists).

    You need to focus more on the data and less on the toothsome Olivia — who is MINE!

  4. Great Claw says: “Olivia — who is MINE!

    Judging from your delusional relationship with Olivia, I’d guess that you weigh in at around 50 stone.

  5. Hmm. I fit the correlation fairly well. I was a chubby kid when I never thought to question the “6 day Creation” I learned in school. But by age 14 I was about average weight for my height. By then I had heard about evolution and thought it made much more sense than the “6 day Creation,” especially the “young earth” version I had just learned.

  6. Meg, am I going to have to feed you to my dogs?

  7. I went to Imperial College but I don’t recall Judson in the department.

    Of course, she would have been 6 years old at the time …

  8. Doc Bill says: “Of course, she would have been 6 years old at the time …”

    You would have remembered. But her father was working in the US, so it’s unlikely she was anywhere around Imperial College at that age.

  9. Gabriel Hanna

    Stephen Jay Gould posed a problem for your thesis, as do all of your readers of whom I have direct knowledge.

  10. Gabriel Hanna dares to suggest: “… a problem for your thesis …”

    Don’t bother me with evidence. My conjecture is true.