UA Study Finds Belly Fat Poses Higher Risk of Mortality Than Being Overweight For Older Women

Mar 6, 2017

A higher waist circumference was associated with premature mortality among postmenopausal women, indicating that abdominal fat is more deadly than carrying excess weight, according to a large multiethnic study by researchers at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. Being underweight also was linked with an increased risk of early death among postmenopausal women. The study was published online in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Feb. 23.

“Our study highlights the fact that although being overweight often is considered to be generally bad for your health, how bad it is can depend on your age and ethnic background,” said Zhao Chen, PhD, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health.

To evaluate if the relationship between measures of obesity with premature mortality varies by age and race/ethnicity in older women, Dr. Chen and colleagues analyzed information on 161,808 generally healthy postmenopausal women participating in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), a long-term national health study.

During an average follow-up of 11.4 years, the investigators observed a U-shaped curve for the relationship between body mass index (BMI) and mortality, so that women who were underweight or significantly obese had an elevated risk of dying during follow-up. There also was a close to linear relationship between waist circumference and mortality across each racial/ethnic and age group, so that women with wider waists had higher risks of dying. Interestingly, Hispanic women in the study had a lower mortality rate at any given BMI or waist circumference, compared with non-Hispanic whites or African-Americans.

The findings suggest that there may be different healthy BMI ranges for older women, and they support growing evidence that abdominal obesity, rather than general obesity, plays an important role in individuals’ risk of dying early.

“We have used data from the large prospective cohort of the U.S. Women’s Health Initiative to add evidence on the relationship of general and central obesity with all-cause mortality in older women, especially in African-American and Hispanic-American older women, who have not been well represented in previous research on this topic,” said Dr. Chen. “Our study findings have called public health attention to reduce central obesity in older women from different racial/ethnic groups and to reconsider recommendations on the range of healthy BMI in older women.”

About the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health

Established in 2000, the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona Health Sciences is the first nationally accredited college of public health in the Southwest. Today the college remains the only accredited college of public health in the state of Arizona with campuses in Tucson and Phoenix. The college enrolls more than 1,100 students per year across degree programs at the bachelor, master and doctoral levels. Through research, education and community engagement, the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health continues to find solutions to public health problems in Arizona, the southwest and globally. For more information: publichealth.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter)

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences

The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. The UA Health Sciences includes the UA Colleges of Medicine (Phoenix and Tucson), Nursing, Pharmacy and Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the growing Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, the UA Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona and the greater Southwest to provide cutting-edge health education, research, patient care and community outreach services. A major economic engine, the UA Health Sciences employs almost 5,000 people, has nearly 1,000 faculty members and garners more than $126 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn)

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