New Research Uncovers Gender Differences for Risk of Developing Heart Disease

Mass General Research Institute goes red for heart month

Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States? American Heart Month, celebrated in February, is an opportunity to raise awareness about heart disease and how people can prevent it.

Researchers and clinicians at Massachusetts General Hospital are working to improve treatment and care for patients with this disease. Over the next few weeks we’ll be featuring some of their research – stay tuned for more!

We can all agree that carrying a lot of fat on our bodies isn’t healthy. But when it comes to heart health, where the fat is located and the type of fat can make a big difference—especially for women.

New research from Massachusetts General Hospital finds that having a certain type of body fat known as ectopic fat in the midsection may put women at a greater risk for developing heart disease and other cardiovascular health issues in comparison to men.

Before we jump into the research, let’s define a few terms:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD): the most common type of heart disease and the leading cause of death in the United States in both men and women. CAD develops when plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart.
  • Cardiometabolic risk: your risk of developing conditions including diabetes, heart disease or stroke
  • Ectopic fat: a dangerous type of fat that accumulates around vital organs such as the liver and abdomen

Previous studies have shown that the way fat is distributed in the body may be a health threat. For example, people with fat accumulation in and around their abdomen (often referred to as apple-shaped bodies) have a higher risk for coronary artery disease compared to individuals who store fat in their hips and thighs (commonly known as pear-shaped bodies).

Now new research presented at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) 2017 Annual Meeting, led by Miriam A. Bredella, MD, radiologist at Mass General, finds that gender also plays a key role.

Exploring differences between men and women

Bredella and her research team examined 200 overweight and obese but otherwise healthy adults. 91 of the participants were male, and all participants had a similar body mass index (BMI) and age.

The researchers found that female participants had more total body fat and more superficial “pinchable” fat in their thighs, but had a lower lean body mass (the amount of weight you carry on your body that isn’t fat). Male participants had more ectopic fat in the abdomen (commonly referred to as a “beer belly”) and in their liver and muscle cells.

What’s more, the study found that the risks of carrying ectopic fat at the abdomen differed for men and women. Ectopic fat did not increase men’s risk of cardiometabolic disease but it significantly increased cardiometabolic risk in women with the same BMI.

“The detrimental fat depots deep in the belly, muscles, and liver are more damaging for cardiometabolic health in women compared to men,” said Bredella in an interview with Medical News Today.

This discrepancy could be due to the fact that men typically have higher muscle and lean mass, which are protective for cardiometabolic health.

More research is needed to better understand this discrepancy between men and women. More insights into the connections between body shape, gender and risk of CAD or other cardiometabolic disorders could also help to guide new treatment strategies for overweight patients.

However, there are actions that all individuals can take to reduce their cardiometabolic risk. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and exercise can help to increase muscle tissue and promote weight loss, both of which are beneficial to heart health.

This article was adapted from a post on Massachusetts General Hospital’s Advances in Motion. Read the original post here.


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