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Weight & Waistlines: Heart Disease Risk Factors

What's weight got do to with heart disease? Plenty!
WebMD Feature

Remember when you were a kid and hefty Uncle Morty would always end every Thanksgiving dinner by pushing himself from the table, opening his belt buckle, and letting his growing belly roll him onto the Lazee-Boy? Remember how you promised yourself you'd never end up like that -- no matter what?

Statistics show that more than a few of us have broken that promise. According to the CDC, more than 60% of the population is either overweight or obese. And experts say that's bad news for heart health nationwide.

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Overall, it's a constellation of risks that threaten our heart health most: a combination of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar.

But simply being overweight - without any other risk factor -- can cause problems, says the American Heart Association.

The heavier you are -- period -- the higher your risk of heart disease, says Helene Glassberg, MD, director of the Preventive Cardiology and Lipid Center at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

Moreover, excess weight often means higher-than-normal levels of both cholesterol and triglycerides, indications of how much fat may be also floating around in your blood.

"The higher your level of blood fats, the greater your risk of developing a clot significant enough to block blood flow to your heart," says Glassberg.

Indeed, even seemingly healthy hearts are affected by weight. In a study published in the journal Circulation, doctors found that lugging around those extra pounds appears to subtly weaken your heart's ability to pump blood -- one of the first steps leading to eventual heart failure.

But weight alone is not your only concern. If you have thin arms and legs but a bulging tummy, you may be at equally high -- or even higher -- risk than an overweight or obese person. Emerging research points to "central obesity" (or a big waistline) as a key culprit in bringing on heart disease.

Your Waistline Is a Key Predictor of Heart Disease

While for many years doctors weren't exactly sure of the link between weight and heart health, recent studies, including research published in the American Journal of Physiology in 2005, indicate fat cells may act like mini chemical factories, churning out a host of hormones and other inflammatory substances that increase our risk of heart disease.

This, say experts, is particularly true if you carry your excess weight around a chubby midsection or "spare tire."

What's the connection here? Doctors say that fat around the midsection acts differently than fat on your thighs or on your bottom.

"We used to think that all adipose [fat] tissue was neutral -- but as it turns out, it's an active organ that makes all kinds of substances that we now know can cause, or at least stimulate the atherosclerotic process," says James Underberg, MD, Director of the Bellevue Hospital Lipid Clinic, in New York City.

In studies on more than 1,300 Finnish men published in the European Heart Journal, doctors learned that an central obesity is, on its own, a potent predictor of heart disease, with risks that go far beyond obesity alone.

National criteria propose that a 40-inch waist in men and 35-inch waist in women predicted an increased risk for heart disease.

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