Researchers followed about 360,000 Europeans enrolled in one of the largest and longest health studies in the world.
They found that people with the most belly fat had about double the risk of dying prematurely of the people with the least amount of belly fat. Death risk increased with waist circumference, whether the participants were overweight or not.
The study provides some of the strongest evidence yet linking belly fat to early death, says lead author Tobias Pischon, MD, MPH. It appears in the Nov. 12 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
"Our study shows that accumulating excess fat around your middle can put your health at risk even if your weight is normal," Pischon says. "There aren't many simple individual characteristics that can increase a person's risk of premature death to this extent, independent of smoking and drinking."
Belly Fat Research
It has long been recognized that people who carry their excess weight around their middles - those who are apple-shaped instead of pear-shaped - have a higher risk for heart attacks and strokes.
Recent research also suggests a link between belly fat and a range of other diseases, including diabetes, some cancers, and even age-related dementias.
But it has not been clear whether the increase in death risk associated with abdominal obesity occurs independently of recognized risk factors like general obesity, Pischon says.
The researchers used two measures of abdominal obesity - waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio - in their attempt to better understand the role of belly fat in early death.
They examined data on 359,387 European adults followed for nearly 10 years who were enrolled in the larger, ongoing European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) health study.
During the follow-up period, 14,723 of the study participants died.
After adjusting for overweight and obesity, as measured by body mass index (BMI), waist circumference and waist-to-hip measurements were both independently associated with an increased risk for early death.
"The most important result of our study is the finding that not just being overweight, but also the distribution of body fat, affects the risk of premature death," Pischon says.
The findings come as no surprise to University of Michigan cardiologist and
research scientist Daniel Eitzman, MD.
Work by Eitzman and colleagues in mice found that belly fat - also known as visceral fat - produces more inflammation than fat found in other areas of the body.
Inflammation is thought to play a key role in heart disease and a host of other chronic diseases.
Eitzman tells WebMD that measurement of waist circumference or waist-to-hip ratio are important for assessing the risk of inflammation-driven disease.
"Studies like this focus attention on the importance of measuring visceral fat, which is not now routinely done in clinical practice," he says.
Are You an Apple or a Pear?
So how do you tell if you have more belly fat than is healthy?
By Salynn Boyles
Reviewed by Elizabeth Klodas
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