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Neurocognitive correlates of obesity and obesity-related behaviors in children and adolescents


Childhood obesity rates have risen dramatically over the past few decades. Although obesity has been linked to poorer neurocognitive functioning in adults, much less is known about this relationship in children and adolescents. Therefore, we conducted a systematic review to examine the relationship between obesity and obesity-related behaviors with neurocognitive functioning in youth. We reviewed articles from 1976 to 2013 using PsycInfo, PubMed, Medline and Google Scholar. Search terms included cognitive function, neurocognitive function/performance, executive function, impulsivity, self-regulation, effortful control, cognitive control, inhibition, delayed gratification, memory, attention, language, motor, visuo-spatial, academic achievement, obesity, overweight, body mass index, waist-hip ratio, adiposity and body fat. Articles were excluded if participants had health problems known to affect cognitive functioning, the study used imaging as the only outcome measure, they were non-peer-reviewed dissertations, theses, review papers, commentaries, or they were non-English articles. Sixty-seven studies met inclusion criteria for this review. Overall, we found data that support a negative relationship between obesity and various aspects of neurocognitive functioning, such as executive functioning, attention, visuo-spatial performance, and motor skill. The existing literature is mixed on the effects among obesity, general cognitive functioning, language, learning, memory, and academic achievement. Executive dysfunction is associated with obesity-related behaviors, such as increased intake, disinhibited eating, and less physical activity. Physical activity is positively linked with motor skill. More longitudinal research is needed to determine the directionality of such relationships, to point towards crucial intervention time periods in the development of children, and to inform effective treatment programs.

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