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Stomach Fat Linked with Higher Rates of Cancer, Heart Disease

Jul 12, 2013 01:17 PM EDT

Excessive stomach fat puts individuals at higher risk for heart disease and cancer compared to those with a similar body mass index (BMI) but who carry their fat in other areas of the body, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

It's well known that abdominal fat can be more dangerous than fat in other areas, but this study marks the first time CT scanning was used to study fat depots located in specific areas for direct associations with disease risk, which can vary among individuals with similar BMIs.

One possible reason for this variation, researchers hypothesize, is a person's amount of ectopic fat, or fat located where it is not supposed to be - in this case the abdominal area. Knowing this, the researchers sought to find a link between the location of body fat and specific risk factors for heart disease and cancer.

In order to accomplish this, the scientists assessed ectopic fat in the abdominal area, around the heart tissue and around the aortic artery of 3,086 participants and followed the participants for heart disease and cancer for up to seven years.

The average age of participants was 50 years and nearly half were women. All were assessed using a CT scan to identify areas of fat accumulation. Then, over the follow-up period, patients were assessed for heart disease, cancer and death risk while adjusting for standard risk factors.

Overall, there were 90 cardiovascular events, 141 cancer cases and 71 deaths. Abdominal fat, which is typically an indicator of fat around internal organs, was associated with incident heart disease and cancer after adjusting for clinical risk factors and general obesity, the researchers found.

"Contrary to previously published studies comparing BMI and waist circumference, the presence of abdominal fat improved the ability to predict for cardiovascular disease, supporting the hypothesis that abdominal fat may partially underlie the association of body fat and heart disease and cancer," said Dr. Caroline S. Fox, senior author on the study and a senior investigator at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Laboratory for Metabolic and Population Health in Framingham, Mass.

Knowing this, argues Dr. Kathryn A. Britton, the lead author of the study and an instructor of medicine at the hospital, can only help doctors as they strive to better serve their patients struggling with excess fat.

"Given the worldwide obesity epidemic, identification of high-risk individuals is important, as it allows targeting of preventive and therapeutic measures," she said.

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