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Heart disease risk varies by body type and race in women, study finds

Wes Venteicher
| Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, 6:00 p.m.
Samar El Khoudary was senior author of an analysis finding that body types signify different amounts of heart fat in black and white women. Heart fat is associated with cardiovascular risk.
Samar El Khoudary was senior author of an analysis finding that body types signify different amounts of heart fat in black and white women. Heart fat is associated with cardiovascular risk.

A woman's body shape is uniquely connected to her heart disease risk, particularly in midlife, and different shapes are associated with risks in black women than in white women, according to a new analysis by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Fat around the midsection is associated with more fat around the heart in black women, while fat that is dispersed around the body is associated with more fat around the heart in white women, according to an analysis published Wednesday in the journal Menopause.

Fat around the heart is known to significantly increase heart disease risk, partly because the fat secretes chemicals and hormones that can enter the bloodstream through the heart and harden arteries, said Samar El Khoudary, senior author of the analysis and an associate professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health.

The study's results strengthen a similar finding from three years ago among black and white men.

“Being able to show the same thing here among women kind of highlights the importance of visceral fat in black people in particular,” she said.

Researchers analyzed fat measurements from 524 Pittsburgh and Chicago women with a mean age of about 51 who are part of the ongoing Study of Women's Health Across the Nation. Researchers didn't follow the participants over time and did not establish any causal links.

Heart fat was associated with midsection fat in black women, while heart fat tracked with body-mass-index in white women, according to the analysis. Researchers adjusted for age, study site, comorbid conditions, alcohol consumption and menopausal status (postmenopausal women tend to have more heart fat than premenopausal women).

A 2013 study found that a doubling in heart fat volume was associated with a 1.5-fold increased risk of heart disease, independent of other cardiovascular risk factors.

Black people have smaller amounts of visceral fat than white people, but the fat seems to put them at greater risk for having fat around their hearts than in white people, but researchers don't fully understand the potential connection, El Khoudary said.

Heart fat is difficult to measure, usually requiring specialized scans, she said. The study results can help women identify elevated cardiovascular risk based on body shape without the scans, she said.

The best response to a heightened risk remains the same as always, she said — diet and exercise and a healthy lifestyle.

“If you haven't done exercise before, the midlife is a very important period to get involved; watch your diet and get involved in a healthy lifestyle,” El Khoudary said.

Correction: Aug. 3

The story has been modified to reflect uncertainty among researchers about whether small amounts of visceral fat are associated with a higher risk of heart fat in black people than in white people.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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