Piling on Pounds When Younger May Lead to Enlarged Heart Later

Long-term study found the earlier the weight gain, the greater the increase in heart size, a disease risk factor

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THURSDAY, March 7 (HealthDay News) -- Carrying around excess body weight, particularly in early adulthood, can result in a dangerously enlarged heart later in life, a new study finds.

"There are already multiple reasons to target obesity at a young age, but this study adds yet another," said one expert not connected to the study, Dr. Eugenia Gianos, an assistant professor in the department of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, in New York City. "Targeting obesity at a young age is exceptionally valuable to improving cardiovascular health and this study reaffirms this."

In the study, British researchers assessed the body mass index (a measurement based on weight and height) and heart health of more than 1,600 men and women at different time periods in their lives.

They found that those who were overweight throughout their lives were much more likely to have increases in the heart's left ventricular mass and relative wall thickness. Both of these are strong and independent predictors of cardiovascular disease and death, the researchers said.

However, the earlier in life that a person became overweight, the greater the increase in his or her heart size later in life. For example, the hearts of people who were overweight beginning in their 20s were 7 percent heavier than the hearts of people who became overweight in their 60s, according to the study scheduled for presentation Thursday at an annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology (ACC), in San Francisco.

"Being overweight in your 20s can have detrimental effects on the heart 40 years in the future, especially if you keep the weight on over the years," lead investigator Arjun Ghosh, a clinical research fellow at the International Centre for Circulatory Health of Britain's National Heart and Lung Institute, said in an ACC news release.

"It's probably the wrong attitude to think 'I know I'm overweight now, but I'll lose the weight later' because the longer you spend overweight, the greater the weight of your heart muscle," Ghosh explained. "And we know from other studies that even if we take away or account for high blood pressure, diabetes or other risk factors for heart disease, somebody with a bigger heart muscle is more likely to have a heart attack, die or have other problems, such as stroke."

The study results come from 44 years of data and few, if any, other studies have been able to examine the connection between body weight and heart size over such a long time period, added Ghosh, who is also with the U.K. Medical Research Council's Unit for Lifelong Health and Aging.

Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum is a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City. She explained that "the effects of being overweight ... are not simply in increasing heart risk factors, but also in increasing the amount of work the heart has to do, which results in hypertrophy of the heart muscle. In time, this can result in a cardiomyopathy and worse outcomes."

This may be especially important in youth, Ghosh said.

"Our findings add to the wealth of evidence that obesity and being overweight from a young age is not good, and provide yet another reason why we need to focus on preventing obesity and promoting a healthy lifestyle," Ghosh said. "Being overweight is a significant risk factor for heart disease, and worldwide, people seem to be becoming overweight at younger and younger ages."

He noted that one-third of school-aged children in North America are overweight, with an increasing number of children carrying excess pounds when they reach adulthood.

Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health outlines steps you can take to reduce heart risks.

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