Health & wellness

Length of time being obese raises heart disease risks

In another dire warning against the perils of childhood obesity, researchers have determined that the longer people remain obese the greater their likelihood of developing early signs of heart disease years before their peers. In the new study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association researchers from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute tracked more than 3,000 young adults for three decades and found that the 40 percent of them who became obese over the duration of the study were more likely to develop hardened calcifications on their heart arteries, a condition that often leads to heart attacks down the road.

It didn’t matter whether a person was 50 pounds, 100 pounds or 150 pounds overweight, every year spent in an obese state raised their risk of developing clogged arteries. Obesity is defined as having a body mass index of 30 or above, which is 180 pounds or more for a 5’5” person.

“For every year of being obese, a person’s risk of developing coronary calcification was increased about 2 to 4 percent,” said study leader Jared Reis, an epidemiologist with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “That’s not a huge increase but when we start compounding it over a lifetime we’re talking about a significantly increased risk.”


CT imaging scans performed every ten years during the study revealed dangerous calcifications in nearly 40 percent of the participants who were obese compared to 25 percent of those who weren’t. The researchers took into account other differences between the obese and non-obese groups such as smoking habits, diet, exercise, cholesterol, blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

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They also examined obese folks with larger waistlines -- called abdominal obesity -- and found they had a slightly higher risk of developing calcifications than those with obesity whose body fat was more evenly distributed.

“We expected the risk associated with obesity and a larger waistline to be somewhat higher,” Reis said, since abdominal fat is known to be more damaging to the heart than fat that rests on the hips and thighs.

But weight management specialists can point to the tiny difference in risks with regards to the type of obesity as proof that all kinds of obesity are bad for the heart.

“It’s a disturbing finding because some in the field just want to target those with complications from obesity, like diabetes, for treatment,” said Dr. Caroline Apovian, a director of the nutrition and weight management center at Boston Medical Center. “It puts us back at square one and the need to prevent all obesity.”


She strongly applauded the American Medical Association’s recent decision to classify obesity as a disease and said the new study provides further evidence that the recent surge in obesity rates among young adults might mean that they won’t live as long as their parents.

Studying the impact of the problem, however, may prove to be easier than implementing solutions. Even with intensive weight loss counseling, obese individuals often find it impossible to lose a significant amount of weight permanently.

Apovian said efforts would be better directed at prevention -- especially of obesity in kids -- but that, too, is tough to do.

“The real solution is to fix the food supply,” she said, “by subsidizing fruits and vegetables and taxing sugar sweetened beverages.” Both of those proposals have been met with heated protests by the food industry.

Educating parents to limit fast-food consumption and soda purchases may be a bit easier, especially now, Apovian said, that “we can show them that early obesity is a clear path to disease.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.