Feb. 13, 2009 -- Belly fat has been linked to increased risks for heart disease and diabetes. Now new research suggests it may also be linked to an increased risk for migraines, at least until middle age.
Waist circumference was found to be a better predictor of migraine activity than general obesity in both men and women up until age 55.
Earlier research has linked obesity with an increase in the frequency of migraines in people who already have them. But the new study is one of the few to suggest that obesity raises the overall risk for migraines.
And it is the first to examine whether belly fat may play a specific role in migraines and severe frequent headaches.
The findings will be presented in April at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) in Seattle.
Belly Fat and Migraines
Researchers from Philadelphia's Drexel University College of Medicine examined data collected from more than 22,000 participants in the ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
The survey included measurements of both abdominal obesity, measured by waist circumference, and overall obesity, as determined by body mass index (BMI). The data also include self-reported estimates of migraine and severe headache frequency.
Women are three times as likely as men to suffer from migraines. Researcher B. Lee Peterlin, DO, tells WebMD that the findings may help researchers understand this gender difference.
"This may be one piece of the puzzle," she says. "This does not suggest that if you lose your extra abdominal fat it will cure your migraines. But it may be a clue to help explain the sexual dimorphism in migraine."
Even after controlling for overall obesity, excess belly fat was associated with a significant increase in migraine activity in both men and women between the ages of 20 and 55.
"This is the age when migraine is most prevalent," she says. "Our findings suggest that both general obesity and abdominal obesity are associated with an increased prevalence of migraine in this age group."
Women with extra belly fat were 30% more likely to experience migraines than women without excess belly fat, even after accounting for overall obesity, risk factors for heart disease, and demographic characteristics. The link between belly fat and migraines in men in this age group was not significant when accounting for these factors.
Migraines in Women
The findings suggest that belly fat is an important risk factor for migraine, but it may be more important in women than in men, Peterlin says.
After age 55, carrying extra weight around the middle appeared to be associated with a slight decrease in migraine risk in women, but the reasons for this are not clear.
"That was a surprise," Peterlin says. "It appears that there is an impact at every age, but it changes. In women under 55, belly fat is bad. But over 55, having belly fat may actually be mildly protective against migraine."
Migraine researcher Stephen Silberstein, MD, tells WebMD that the new research raises more questions than it answers.
Silberstein is a spokesman for the American Academy of Neurology and a professor of neurology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
"The large population-based studies indicate that obesity correlates with the frequency, but not the presence of migraines," he says. "This is the first time anyone has looked at abdominal girth and they found that it predicts the presence of migraines. This is an interesting observation, but these findings would definitely need to be duplicated."