Women's Waists May Tell Gallstone Risk

Women With Large Waists More Likely to Have Gallstone Surgery

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 13, 2006 - For women, a large midriff may mean being more likely to eventually get surgery to remove gallstones.

The finding, published in the journal Gut, comes from a 14-year study of more than 42,000 female nurses. The women reported their waist and hip measurements, height, and weight in 1986. They were 39-66 years old at the time. The women also completed questionnaires about their health every two years.

By 2000, the group had had nearly 3,200 surgeries to remove the gallbladder due to gallstone disease. Women with large waists and high waist-to-hip ratios at the study's start were more likely to have had the operation, the study shows.

The researchers included Chung-Jyi Tsai, MD, ScD. Tsai works in the University of Kentucky's division of digestive diseases and nutrition and at Harvard Medical School.

About Gallstones

The gallbladder is a small organ that secretes bile into the digestive tract to help digest food we eat. Gallstones are crystallized deposits that develop in the gallbladder. They may be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. Gallstones may be hard or soft, smooth or jagged, numerous or one-of-a-kind.

In the U.S., nearly 10% of men and 20% of women have gallstones at some point in their lives (gallstones are most common after 60), but not all of them know it. Gallstones are often harmless. But if they lodge in the gallbladder's ducts, gallstones can become painful and possibly infected, causing inflammation.

Every year, more than 800,000 operations are done in the U.S. to remove gallstones, according to Tsai and colleagues. In Western countries, gallstones are typically made of cholesterol, the researchers add.

Large Waists a Risk Factor

The researchers didn't just look at the women's waist size. They also took the women's height into account.

Women with height-adjusted waists of 36 inches or more were nearly twice as likely to have gallstone surgery during the study as those with height-adjusted waists of less than 26 inches.

To get the women's waist-to-hip ratio, Tsai's team divided each woman's waist measurement by her hip measurement. Women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.86 or higher were nearly 40% more likely to have gallstone surgery than those with a waist-to-hip ratio of less than 0.70, the study shows.

Other women likely had undetected, harmless gallstones that didn't require surgery, the researchers write.


Abdominal Fat an Issue

There may be something particularly important about belly fat, the study suggests.

As people age, their waists tend to get bigger, and fat often gathers, note Tsai and colleagues. Visceral fat -- fat located deep in the abdomen -- may be more active than fat in other parts of the body, they add.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 13, 2006


SOURCES: Tsai, C. Gut, Feb. 14, 2006; online edition. WebMD Medical Reference: "Understanding Gallstones: The Basics." News release, BMJ Specialist Journals.
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