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Bulging Midriffs Signal Higher Health Risks

Increased risk of death for people who've had a heart attack

A new study finds that people with heart disease who have even a modest amount of belly fat have twice the risk of dying as those with fat deposits elsewhere on their body.
A new study finds that people with heart disease who have even a modest amount of belly fat have twice the risk of dying as those with fat deposits elsewhere on their body.

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Jessica Berman

There is compelling new evidence that a little bit of belly fat can be extremely hazardous to your health if you’ve had a heart attack. The study’s findings compare the increased risk of death to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day or having very high cholesterol.

In one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, have found that people with heart disease who have even a modest amount of belly fat have twice the risk of dying as those with fat deposits elsewhere on their body.

Researchers led by Francisco Lopez-Jimenez analyzed data collected in five studies on almost 16,000 heart attack survivors around the world.

Lopez-Jimenez says researchers wanted to try to predict how well these patients would do in the future, based on where their body fat was deposited.

"We found that people with fat distribution where the belly was bigger than the hip or where the belly was just too big - those people were about anything from 25 to almost 70 percent more likely to die compared to those with normal fat distribution."

While obesity has long been linked to cardiovascular disease, Lopez-Jimenez, who heads the Cardio- metabolic program at Mayo, says that was not the best predictor of long-term survival. Obesity is usually measured by calculating a person’s body mass index, the amount of body fat relative to height and weight.  But in the study, individuals with a higher BMI, who had more body fat in general, lived longer than those with a lower BMI.

Lopez-Jimenez says that the distribution of fat was a better prognostic indicator.

Researchers don’t know why having belly fat increases the risk of death compared to fat that is more evenly distributed or in other areas of the body, such as the legs and buttocks.

Lopez-Jimenez says it appears that abdominal fat is more metabolically active, causing elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure.

"And all those are factors that cause heart disease.  So for somebody who already has heart disease, we believe that those factors will just worsen to the point that people don’t do very well."

Fortunately, experts say belly fat is the easiest type of body fat to lose.  Most people can shrink their "spare tires" with a low-calorie, high-fiber diet and a routine of moderate daily exercise.

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