Expanding Waistline Means Diminishing Lifespan

November 14, 2008 09:58 AM
by Isabel Cowles
A recent investigation indicates that a higher-than-average waist to hip ratio is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, liver dysfunction and early death.

All fat was not created equal

Medical experts have long associated excessive fat with less-than-optimal health, but a recent study has confirmed that abdominal fat is the most dangerous deposit of all.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that waist size is a “powerful indicator” of potential health risks, including early death. Past studies have shown similar findings, but the size of this investigation gives researchers an especially firm grasp on the topic: nearly 360,000 people from nine European countries participated.

The study was completed over a 10-year period and traced the overall health of participants as it correlated to both Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist-to-hip ratios.

According to findings, individuals with normal BMI levels could be at high risk of early death if their waists were larger than average. “Each extra 2ins [around the waist] raised the chance of early death by between 13% and 17%,” the BBC reports.

Imperial College Professor Elio Riboli told the BBC, “We were surprised to see the waist size having such a powerful effect on people’s health and premature death,” noting that “There aren’t many simple individual characteristics that can increase a person's risk of premature death to this extent, independently from smoking and drinking.”

Abdominal fat is so much more threatening than other lipid deposits because it behaves differently, research shows. Fat that collects on legs and arms, called subcutaneous fat, rests just below the surface of the skin. In contrast, abdominal fat, also called visceral fat, is deeply embedded within the abdominal cavity—in close proximity to vital organs.

Harvard University endocrinologist Dr. JoAnn Manson, explained that while subcutaneous fat is in storage, waiting to be used by the body, visceral fat is more metabolically and biologically active.

Visceral fats “tend to be more active in producing hormones and chemical messengers that cause inflammation throughout the body,” Manson said. Such hormonal activity can harm internal organs, such as the liver and heart.

According to Dr. Robert Kushner of Northwestern University’s School of Medicine, “abdominal fat releases fatty acids and other signals that go to the rest of the body and cause increased blood fats like cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as higher blood pressure.”

Research at Harvard University indicates women have an increased risk for abdominal fat-associated health risks, as their bodies metabolize food differently after menopause.

Fortunately, researchers across the board have also shown that visceral fat is easier to lose than subcutaneous fat, and can be targeted through moderate eating and increased exercise. Unfortunately, it’s also the quickest to be gained back.

Related Topics: Hidden abdominal fat; countries crack down on obesity

New MRI scanning technology has illustrated that even individuals who appear fit may actually have stores of hidden fat. Professor Jimmy Bell, head of the molecular imaging group at the Medical Research Council's centre at Imperial College argued that recent obsessions with diet trends miss the broader health picture. Bell explained, “As you lose weight, it tends to go from the top and bottom of your body first, so it can become concentrated in the abdomen. That is the most dangerous zone of all.”

Britain is already working to combat national obesity by raising awareness of the problem in childhood. As part of a new program, schools will record each student’s height and weight and send a letter to parents to notify them if their child has a weight problem.

Meanwhile, Japan is going after abdominal fat in adults; everyone between the ages of 40 and 74 must have their waistline measured during yearly checkups. Individuals who exceed national guidelines will receive dietary guidance. Employers and local governments who report persistent problems with obesity will be fined.

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