Obesity Rates Appear Linked To A Disorder Causing Headaches And Vision Problems

There is an often debilitating brain pressure disorder on the rise. This disorder can cause disabling headaches, vision problems and in some cases, loss of vision. New research has linked the rise of this disorder to the rise in obesity rates in the US and abroad.

While idiopathic intracranial hypertension is not a new disorder, it’s rise in frequency in recent years is a new development. A study recently published in the American Academy of Neurology journal Neurology makes the connection between the increased incidence of this disorder and the rise in obesity rates in recent years. The study found that for women, the risk is increased in relation to their socioeconomic status and related factors like income, education and housing.

Idiopathic intracranial hypertension is a condition in which the pressure in the fluid around the brain increases. Most often diagnosed in women of childbearing age, it can mimic the symptoms of a brain tumor – headaches, vision difficulties or vision loss. While surgery may be required in some cases, weight loss is the most frequently recommended treatment.


“The considerable increase in idiopathic intracranial hypertension we found may be due to many factors but likely mostly due to rising obesity rates,” said study author William Owen Pickrell, Ph.D., M.R.C.P., of Swansea University in Wales in the United Kingdom and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “What is more surprising from our research is that women who experience poverty or other socioeconomic disadvantages may also have an increased risk independent of obesity.”

Using a national healthcare database in Wales, which comprised over 35 million patient years over a period of 15 years (2003-2017,) the researchers found 1,735 people who had suffered from idiopathic intracranial hypertension during that period. Of this group, 85% were women.

They recorded body mass index, acquired by dividing a patients weight by their height, for each patient. As a control measure, the scientists compared three people without the condition who had been matched for age, gender and socioeconomic status.

Those people whose records were used in the study were broken into five groups, ranging from those with the highest number of socioeconomic advantages to those with the fewest. Socioeconomic status was derived by assessing where they lived via a national scoring system that took into account factors including health, employment, income, education and their access to services.


During the study period, 2003 t0 2017, the researchers noted a six-fold increase in the number of cases of idiopathic intracranial hypertension. In 2003, 12 of every 100,000 people suffered from the disorder. That number had increased significantly, to 76 out of every 100,000, by 2017. From the perspective of new diagnoses, 2 of every 100,000 people were diagnosed in 2003, while 8 of every 100,000 were diagnosed in w 2017.

The increase in the number of people who suffered with the disorder tracked very closely to the rise in obesity rates during the same period. In Wales in 2003, 29% of the population was obese. That percentage rose to 40% in 2017.

“The worldwide prevalence of obesity nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016, so while our research looked specifically at people in Wales, our results may also have global relevance,” said Pickrell.

The study noted a strong correlation for both women and men between the risk of the disorder and body mass index. For men, those with ideal body mass saw about 8 cases per 100,000 people, but 21 cases per 100,000 among those with high body mass indexes. The situation was worse for women. Among women with high body mass index, there were 180 cases per 100,000 and just 13 per 100,000 among those with ideal body mass indexes.


An interesting finding had to do with women and socioeconomic status. Risk of the disorder seemed to increase for those women with fewer socioeconomic advantages. There were 197 women in the group with the most socioeconomic advantages and 452 in the group with the fewest. This latter group had a 1.5 times higher risk of developing idiopathic intracranial hypertension than the group with the most advantages. This remained true even after adjusting for body mass index.

“Of the five socioeconomic groups of our study participants, women in the lowest two groups made up more than half of the female participants in the study,” said Pickrell. “More research is needed to determine which socioeconomic factors such as diet, pollution, smoking or stress may play a role in increasing a woman’s risk of developing this disorder.”


One limitation of the study was that researchers identified the socioeconomic status of participants by the regions in which they lived instead of obtaining individual socioeconomic information for each participant. Having more detailed socioeconomic profiles for each person in the study would allow better assessment of the actual impact on overall risk.

There are plenty of reasons to want to improve your health and keep a healthy weight. This study seems to provide one more very good reason!

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Latif Miah, Huw Strafford, Beata Fonferko-Shadrach, Joe Hollinghurst, Inder Ms Sawhney, Savvas Hadjikoutis, Mark I Rees, Rob Powell, Arron Lacey, W Owen Pickrell. Incidence, Prevalence and Healthcare Outcomes in Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension: A Population Study. Neurology, January 20, 2021 DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000011463

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