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Issue 42: Belly Fat Strikes Again

Most of us know that excess fat is not only unsightly and undesirable, but is also unhealthy. We have heard about being overweight or obese setting the stage for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and heart attacks.

But did you know that the extra weight you carry around the middle can possibly increase your risk of stroke, too? According to recent studies—including a new German study—it may. And women ages 35-54 might be leading the pack. 

According to a February 26, 2008 Reuters Health report, there is a rapid rise in stroke incidents for Americans and middle-aged women are increasingly the ones having strokes. One woman who is showing great interest in this unsettling trend is Dr. Amytis Towfighi of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Towfighi and her colleagues analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Surveys (NHANES) collected between the years 1988-1994 and data collected between the years 1999 and 2004 and compared them. "The number of middle-aged women with stroke tripled," Towfighi pointed out.

The reason? The significant increases of waist circumference and body mass index. Towfighi said that 47 percent of women in the earlier survey had abdominal obesity with a waist circumference of 88 centimeters or greater, compared with 59 percent in the later survey.

"There is no good explanation for why abdominal obesity has a greater impact on stroke in women, except that it is one of the defining features of the metabolic syndrome, and the metabolic syndrome has a significantly greater effect on women than men," Towfighi told Reuters Health. (Metabolic syndrome involves a clustering of cardiovascular risk factors which include obesity, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes.) Stroke may be one of those effects that women experience, Towfighi added.

The German study, led by Yaroslay Winter, MD and researchers from the University of Heidelberg studied whether obese or overweight individuals—especially those with growing waistlines—were at greater risk for stroke than those of normal weight. They found that obesity was more common in people who had suffered a stroke—which affected 30% of the group.

They found an even greater connection between waist measurements and stroke risk, however. They found that those with a larger waist circumference (greater than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women) had four times the risk for stroke compared with people who had normal waistlines. What’s more is that those in the study who had the highest waist-to-hip ration had nearly eight times the stroke risk as those with lower ratios.

So what can be done to lower stroke risk? One study in the journal Circulation, indicates that five healthy lifestyle choices can help decrease the most common type of stroke by 80%. They include:

  • Not smoking
  • Keeping a healthy weight--including a healthy body mass index (BMI) of less than 25.
  • Getting 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily.
  • Eating a healthy diet—including lots of vegetables and fruits, lean proteins (chicken or fish), fiber, nuts, and legumes.
  • Lowered alcohol intake.

Women who included all five lifestyle habits had a 79% lower risk of total stroke and 81% lower risk of ischemic stroke than women who followed none of them. 


This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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