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Obesity Speeds Heart Attacks

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WebMD Health News

Aug. 3, 2001 -- It's not just a marker for poor health. All by itself, excess weight lowers the age of first heart attack.

A 10-year study at the Mayo Clinic published in the August issue of Clinical Cardiology shows that merely being overweight drops the age of first heart attack by 3.6 years. Obese people get heart attacks 8.2 years sooner than normal-weight individuals.

"If you are someone who is going to have a heart attack, if you are overweight or obese it will come at a younger age," study co-author R. Scott Wright, MD, tells WebMD. "It is a profound message: being obese carries a much greater risk than having a normal body weight."

It's already known that carrying extra pounds is linked to heart disease. Excess weight puts a person at risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol -- serious medical conditions that raise the risk of heart attacks. The new study now shows that the extra weight increases heart-attack risk all by itself.

The researchers studied 906 patients admitted to the Mayo Clinic with heart attacks. They divided them into three groups -- normal weight, overweight, and obese -- on the basis of their body mass index (BMI, a measure of excess fat based on height and weight).

Normal-weight heart-attack patients (BMI of less than 25) had an average age of 73. The average overweight patient (BMI 25-30) was 67 years old. The average obese patient (BMI >30) was only 62.

How big a problem is it? One out of three Americans is obese. One out of five children aged 6-17 is overweight -- and more than half of these kids will go on to have a weight problem when they grow up.

"Public health officials have told us for some time that the weight of Americans is increasing," Wright says. "If you look around and gauge your weight by those around you, you may be underestimating how much extra weight you are actually carrying."

The good news is that losing weight can help. A 12-year study reported in 1995 shows that women who reduce their excess weight significantly increase their life span.

The bad news is that it is very hard to lose weight and keep it off. It's a much better idea to plan ahead, and to control one's weight.

"The first step is to prevent further weight gain," obesity expert Robert H. Eckel, MD, tells WebMD. "Just maintain your present weight. Having people take steps to modify their lifestyle to prevent further weight gain is a realistic goal. If you say, 'Five years from now I will still weigh 173,' I think that is possible for most people." Eckel is director of the general clinical research center at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

For those willing and able to reduce their risk still further, Wright recommends a four-step program:

  • Go online to calculate your BMI. At WebMD, this tool can be found at http://my.webmd.com/health-e-tools/3837.
  • Determine what weight will give you the BMI you want to have.
  • Speak with your doctor and a dietician to plan a healthy diet.
  • Begin a regular exercise program if your doctor says it is safe for you to do so.

"Think of this as a proactive program to learn what your own personal risks are and to minimize them," Wright suggests.

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