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Increase in Death Risk Not Limited to Overweight, Obese

Nov. 12, 2008 -- Belly fat has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Now an important new study links belly fat to early death.

Researchers followed about 360,000 Europeans enrolled in one of the largest, longest health studies in the world.

They found that people with the most belly fat had about double the risk of dying prematurely as 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 TheNew EnglandJournal of Medicine.

"Our study shows that accumulating excess fat around your middle can put your health at risk even if your weight is normal," he 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.

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