Belly Fat May Raise High Blood Pressure Risk

Abdominal fat raised hypertension risk more than fat concentrated elsewhere

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) When it comes to fat and high blood pressure, location may be everything. Your chances of having high blood pressure are greater if you’re obese, but fat around the belly may pose the greatest risk.

In the US, more than one third of adults are obese, according to the American Heart Association. Anyone who is significantly above his or her ideal weight faces a higher risk of high blood pressure (hypertension) and heart disease.

Researchers recently observed that fat stored around the midsection may be more likely to cause high blood pressure than similar concentrations of fat in other parts of the body.

"Maintain a healthy weight to lower hypertension risk."

"Most people don't realize it, but deep visceral fat is actually a functioning organ of the body. It raises blood levels of a number of hormones and inflammatory markers, and this is probably one reason it is also associated with a higher risk for hypertension," said Sarah Samaan, MD, cardiologist and physician partner at the Baylor Heart Hospital in Plano, Texas.

"Some people are more genetically inclined to deposit fat in the belly, and these people may be at higher risk for hypertension. On the upside, losing even 10 pounds can drop blood pressure by as much as 5-10 points," said Dr. Samaan, who was not involved in this study.

"Losing belly fat takes some work, but it comes down to a healthy diet and regular exercise. Spot exercises, which focus on the belly only, simply won't work. You can't 'crunch' this stuff away. In fact, aerobic exercise along with a Mediterranean or DASH-style diet (which my new book, "The DASH Diet for Dummies," covers in detail) will help the most," she said.

The recent study on body fat and hypertension was conducted by Aslan Turer, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and colleagues.

Dr. Turer and team tracked 903 patients who had normal blood pressure at the start of the study. The patients had a median age of 40. They were mostly women (57 percent) and nonwhite (60 percent).

After a median follow-up of seven years, about one quarter of these patients had high blood pressure — defined as systolic pressure (the top number) greater than or equal to 140 and diastolic pressure (the bottom number) greater than or equal to 90.

The systolic number provides a measure of pressure in the arteries when the heart beats. Diastolic measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats (when the heart muscle is resting between beats and refilling with blood).

Patients who developed high blood pressure had the highest median body mass index (BMI) of 29.9. Those with normal pressure had a median BMI of 26.9. BMI is a measure of weight compared to height.

The study authors used medical imaging techniques like X-rays and MRIs to assess body fat. They measured visceral fat (fat found deep in the abdominal cavity between the organs), subcutaneous fat (visible fat found all over the body) and lower-body fat.

The authors assessed the risk of high blood pressure associated with each type of fat. They found that only abdominal (visceral) fat was associated with hypertension.

Dr. Turer said in a statement that the “apple” body shape is tied to high levels of fat in the abdomen, as opposed to the “pear” body shape.

Within this category of abdominal fat, retroperitoneal fat was uniquely associated with high blood pressure. This kind of fat is located mostly around the kidneys, behind the abdominal cavity.

"The high incidence of hypertension and presence of retroperitoneal fat could suggest that the effects from fat around the kidneys are influencing the development of hypertension," Dr. Turer said in a press release. "This link could open new avenues for the prevention and management of hypertension.”

The study was published in September in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Authors disclosed support from or working relationships with several pharmaceutical companies, such as Merck & Co, Novo Nordisk and AstraZeneca.

Review Date: 
September 3, 2014
Last Updated:
September 4, 2014