TUESDAY, Aug. 16 (HealthDay News) -- The amount of hidden fat
that collects around the heart may be a stronger indicator of
cardiac disease risk than a bulging waistline or flabby thighs, a
new study reports.
Heart fat hidden behind the rib cage -- known as pericardial fat
-- appears to promote irregular plaque build-up along coronary
artery walls that causes atherosclerosis and can trigger heart
attacks, the leading cause of death in the United States, according
to the study.
"It turns out there are specific areas around the heart where hidden fat seems to be promoting coronary disease, even in people without symptoms," said senior study author Dr. David Bluemke, director of radiology and imaging sciences at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Care.
"This is chest fat you'd never see by looking at someone," he added.
Pericardial fat is linked to being overweight or obese,
according to the study in the Aug. 16 online edition of the journal
The findings are from the ongoing Multi-Ethnic Study of
Atherosclerosis (MESA), a study of 6,800 participants aged 45 to 84
from six communities around the country who had no heart disease at
enrollment. In this study, researchers looked at a smaller slice of
the volunteers: 89 women and 94 men with an average age of 61 who,
although most were overweight, were representative of the general
To look for signs of heart disease, the research team used
noninvasive MRI to screen for plaque on the walls of the coronary
artery and compared it with CT scans of heart fat volume. The
NIH-sponsored study highlighted three main findings:
High-risk patients with chest pain and known coronary risk
factors such as obesity should have a traditional angiogram or
advanced diagnostic procedures, said Bluemke. "However, low or
intermediate risk patients may eventually benefit from
understanding that fat deposits around the heart increase their
risk of coronary disease," he said.
And while MRI was used as the "gold standard" for NIH research
on fat distribution and the dangers of obesity, the expensive
procedure isn't necessary in typical patient screening for cardiac
risk, Bluemke added.
Bluemke said CT scans are one of the fastest growing medical
procedures in the country and may increasingly be used to evaluate
coronary artery disease. Scanning often provides data on calcium in
the heart vessel, and can calculate a 'fat score' index for tissues
around the heart as a best practice procedure that could save
lives, he said.
"Two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese and at risk of coronary artery disease and plaque buildup," said Bluemke, noting that extra fat forms "preferentially" in vulnerable areas of the heart of typical overweight patients. "This research says we should be telling doctors about the amount of fat in a patient's chest that shows up on a CT scan, but cannot be seen from outside the body and was previously ignored."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared
obesity a national epidemic and a major contributor to the leading
causes of death in the United States, including heart disease.
Slightly more than one adult in three is obese, and one child in
six is obese, the CDC reports.
Dr. Gregg Fonarow, professor of cardiology at UCLA, agrees that
CT scans may eventually help doctors determine who is most
vulnerable to cardiovascular disease. However, he cautions patients
not to rush out for expensive and unnecessary scans or MRI
screenings just to find hidden heart fat that might be temporary or
not pose a long-term problem.
"The research is really to generate new knowledge and information, not to be a risk predictor or screening tool for the general population," said Fonarow.
An interesting finding is the volume of fat around the heart
being positively related to the plaque burden in asymptomatic men
and women, most of whom need to shed a few pounds, Fonarow said:
"This shows a new reason why overweight people have a higher rate
of cardiovascular risk and gives the public another reason to
maintain a healthy and active lifestyle."
Find out more about heart disease at the
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