Obesity and Memory Problems – Can Weight-Loss Surgery Really Improve Memory?

Christina Dodd 

While the obvious purpose of having weight-loss surgery is to slim down several sizes, weight-loss surgery may also have the potential to improve memory and concentration. A new study showed that obese people, on average, have a slightly impaired ability to remember things and concentrate in various settings. 12 weeks after the weight-loss surgery, patients’ memory scores returned to the normal range. Meanwhile, no such changes were seen in obese subjects who did not undergo the procedure—in fact, their mental abilities actually declined over the 12-week period. Researchers are not sure why this was the case.

Obesity and Memory Problems

The study brought 150 individuals together, all weighing about 300 pounds. 109 of the participants in the study had the surgery performed. Gastric bypass surgery was the most commonly-executed form of weight-loss surgery among the patients. Alternatively, a few patients received gastric banding to restrict the amount of food the stomach can hold. Every participant underwent a series of tests for memory before the surgery to assess their cognitive abilities. One example of a test was the reading of word or number lists and then participants being asked to recite the information at a later time.

In all the tests, participants appeared to be mildly impaired, which might translate into real-life difficulties with following instructions and performing similar tasks successfully. After the 12 weeks, those who had the surgery lost 50 pounds and improved on all four tests while participants who did not have the surgery actually performed worse on two of the four tests and about the same on the other two. This improvement is fairly mysterious, but some researchers believe blood pressure changes may be partially responsible.

This study is the first of its kind to consider the relationship between bariatric weight-loss surgery and improved memory. The study makes it clear that “obesity-related cognitive effects might be at least partly reversible,” a remark made by John Gunstad, an associate professor at Kent State University in Ohio and one of the study researchers. Even those who do not want the surgery will have additional motivation to lose weight by adopting a healthier lifestyle, Gunstad said. Of course, further research will be required to confirm these results and grasp exactly what caused the improved cognitive ability of patients after their surgery.

Currently, there is a growing collection of research that links obesity with memory deficiency and increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease along with other forms of dementia in old age. This study is just a small portion of that collection. Also, while weight-loss surgery may improve memory, bariatric surgery is not a risk-free operation. Patients who are considering the surgery to lose weight and improve memory need to understand that complications can occur over the long-term. Future research comparing weight loss and improved memory will include whether improvements can be seen in non-surgical situations of weight loss.


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