Women who pack weight around their waists instead of on their buttocks and thighs face an increased risk of dying prematurely, according to the largest study yet to look at the association between abdominal fat and death.
A study of 44,636 women, published Monday in the journal Circulation, found that women with the largest waists – those measuring 35 inches or greater – had an 80 percent higher chance of premature death compared with women whose waists measured 28 inches or smaller.
Women with the largest waists had twice the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease – even if their weight was normal – and a 63 percent increased chance of dying of cancer compared with women with smaller waists, according to the report.
The study, conducted by researchers at Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, adds to growing evidence that belly fat can pose serious health risks, even for those who are not obese.
Last month, research in the journal Neurology found that people who had large guts during midlife were at greater risk of developing dementia in old age. Other previous studies have detected a link between abdominal fat and the risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
Richard N. Bergman, an obesity researcher at the University of Southern California, who was not involved with the report, said the results were not a surprise, given the severity of illnesses linked to belly fat. The message is that people should watch waist circumference as well as the scale, he said.
“People can be very comfortable with their weight and not be aware that, due to their waist circumference, they are at increased risk,” he said.
Although the study looked only at women, Bergman said men with large bellies probably also faced a higher risk of death.
Lead author Dr. Cuilin Zhang, a researcher at the National Institute of Child Health and Development, said it was unclear why abdominal fat proved particularly dangerous.
Zhang, who conducted the research while at Harvard, said one theory was that abdominal fat exposed nearby organs to potentially toxic chemicals produced by the fat. Fat that collects on the buttocks and thighs may be less harmful because it is distant from the liver, pancreas and other organs, she said.
Researchers hope to identify genes or other factors that cause people to accumulate fat primarily in the belly, Zhang said. About half of U.S. adults have an unhealthy amount of belly fat, according to previous studies.