How your stomach can predict your risk of heart disease

Most of us don’t want belly fat for reasons of vanity, but there’s a greater concern about that muffin-top or potbelly. Belly fat could be an indicator of future or existing heart disease.

“Over the past ten years there have been many studies that link how body fat is distributed to cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Kathryn Britton, a cardiologist in Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Division of Cardiology. “But we don’t yet know the biology and mechanism. There are a lot of studies looking into whether or not there’s some cause as to why some people deposit fat in their middle and whether it’s directly linked to heart disease, or whether it’s a marker of other things associated with heart disease, such as high cholesterol.”

Though being overweight can add to heart problems, weight is not as directly linked to heart disease as belly fat.

“Two people who weigh the same might not have the fat distributed in the same places. How fat’s distributed is important,” insists Dr. Britton. “Certain people are more likely to deposit fat in the abdomen. We don’t know why yet. But we do know that decreasing weight generally will decrease belly fat as well.”

One school of thought is that some people have a genetic predisposition to gaining an apple-shaped abdomen as they age.

“There probably is some genetic component,” Dr. Britton adds. “The big genetic studies have shown genetic variants associated with laying down belly fat.” Still, Britton advises people to avoid shrugging belly fat off as hereditary and out of their control.

“Most medical conditions have genetic and environmental factors and it’s usually environmental that’s a richer contributor,” she says. “There are still so many ways to decrease your risk of heart disease. People should adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle by eating healthy food and exercising.”

Not so fast
Despite what pop-up ads tell you, as yet, there’s no proven magic pill to melt away belly fat, and liposuction doesn’t work for the kind that’s linked to cardiovascular problems: “It isn’t the fat that’s closest to the skin that’s the problem with heart disease,” Dr. Britton says. “The really dangerous fat is deeper, surrounding organs, and you can’t liposuction in that area.”

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