According to their findings, large increases in weight gain -- especially around the abdomen -- during menopause may increase women’s likelihood of developing a cardiovascular condition.
“We need to shift gears on how we think about heart disease risk in women, particularly as they approach and go through menopause,” said researcher Samar El Khoudary, PhD. “Our research is increasingly showing that it isn’t so important how much fat a woman is carrying, which doctors typically measure using weight and BMI, as it is where she is carrying that fat.”
Health risks of abdominal fat
For the study, the researchers analyzed data on more than 360 women enrolled in the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) Heart study. At several junctures throughout the study, the researchers tested two primary risk factors: carotid artery thickness, which has been found to be associated with heart disease risk, and abdominal fat.
The researchers learned that carotid artery thickness and abdominal fat affected each other, and both led to an increased risk of heart disease for menopausal women -- regardless of general menopausal weight gain or BMI score. They found that carotid artery thickness increased as abdominal fat increased, and both factors were linked with a greater likelihood of heart disease.
“Almost 70 percent of post-menopausal women have central obesity -- or excessive weight in their mid-section,” said researcher Saad Samargandy, PhD. “Our analysis showed an accelerated increase of visceral abdominal fat during the menopausal transition of eight percent per year, independent of chronological aging.”
Taking precautions before menopause
While obesity can put a strain on the heart and increase women’s risk of cardiovascular issues, the researchers hope that these findings highlight that there are more factors for medical professionals to consider for menopausal women. Weight and BMI aren’t the only indications of future health concerns; the distribution of that weight plays a key role.
The researchers recommend that women keep a record of their waist measurements, as any significant increases will signal potential threats to heart health.
“Historically, there’s been a disproportionate emphasis on BMI and cardiovascular disease,” Dr. El Khoudary said. “Through this long-running study, we’ve found a clear link between growth in abdominal fat and risk of cardiovascular disease that can be tracked with a measuring tape, but could be missed by calculating BMI. If you can identify women at risk, you can help them modify their lifestyle and diet early to hopefully lower that risk.”