Yingkai Yang, Grant S. Shields, Qian Wu, Yanling Liu, Hong Chen, and Cheng Guo
Obesity is often accompanied by lower working memory (e.g., a lower ability to keep goal-relevant information in mind) relative to healthy weight individuals. Understanding this relative working memory impairment has important clinical implications, as working memory is thought to facilitate adherence to weight management programs. Theoretical models of obesity, self-regulation, and inflammation suggest that inflammation plays a role in obesity-related working memory impairments, but to date no study has tested this prediction. Therefore, the current study examined whether inflammation statistically mediated the relationship between obesity and working memory in a nationally representative dataset of U.S. adults from Wave IV of The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (N=11,546, age range 25–34). Inflammation was quantified via C-reactive protein (CRP) level, and working memory was assessed using a modified digit span backward task. As expected, cross-sectional analyses showed that a body mass index (BMI) indicative of obesity—as well as greater BMI when BMI was analyzed continuously—and greater CRP were each related to lower working memory. Critically, we found that CRP levels statistically mediated the relationships between obesity/greater BMI and working memory, with CRP accounting for 44.1% of the variance explained in working memory by BMI. Moreover, these findings held both with and without controlling for relevant covariates, including demographic characteristics (e.g., age), socioeconomic status, and behavioral factors (e.g., smoking). Our results therefore point to inflammation as playing an important role in the relationship between obesity and working memory, and suggest that interventions aimed at reducing inflammation may help lessen the cognitive burden of obesity.