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Location of Body Fat Tied to Death and Disease Risk

Update Date: Jul 10, 2013 03:30 PM EDT

Location of body fat can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that excess stomach fat is significantly more dangerous than fat located in other places on the body. They latest study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, reveals that people with excessive abdominal fat have greater risk of heart disease and cancer than those with a similar body mass index who carry fat in other areas of the body.

Researchers explain that health risks associated with excess body weight vary among individuals with similar BMI. For instance, ectopic fat, or fat located where it is not supposed to be, could be the cause of this differences in risk.

While it has long been known that abdominal fat can be more dangerous than fat in other areas, the latest study is the first to use CT scan to examine specifically located fat depots for direct associations with disease risk.

"Given the worldwide obesity epidemic, identification of high-risk individuals is important, as it allows targeting of preventive and therapeutic measures," lead researcher Dr. Kathryn A. Britton, an instructor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said in a statement.

Researchers say they wanted to understand why individuals with different body types and similar BMIs have varied obesity related health conditions, and whether fats in certain parts of the body carry more health risks.

The study included 3,086 participants from the Framingham Heart Study.  Researchers looked at the participants' ectopic fat in the abdominal area, around the heart tissue and around the aortic artery.  Participants had an average age of 50, and were followed for up to seven years.

Researchers said each participant was assessed, using a CT scan to identify areas of fat accumulation. During the follow-up period, participants were assessed for heart disease, cancer and death risk while adjusting for standard risk factors.

Researchers said that there were 90 cardiovascular events, 141 cancer cases and 71 deaths. The findings revealed that abdominal fat, which is generally an indicator of fat around internal organs, was associated with incident heart disease and cancer after adjusting for clinical risk factors and general obesity.

"Contrary to previously published studies comparing BMI and waist circumference, the presence of abdominal fat improved the ability to predict for cardiovascular disease, supporting the hypothesis that abdominal fat may partially underlie the association of body fat and heart disease and cancer," senior study author Dr. Caroline S. Fox said in a news release.

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