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Jun 21, 2019

Being Overweight and Obese Damages Heart Muscle

Swedish study links carrying excess weight to a weaker heart and heart failure later in life.

Carrying extra weight may lead to heart damage later in life, based on a recent study that linked overweight and obesity to disease of the heart muscle called cardiomyopathy. Findings were published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation and highlight the importance of a healthy weight for a strong heart.

Based on a national registry of 1.6 million Swedish men, this study explored weight as a risk factor for cardiomyopathy. Cardiomyopathy—which occurs when the heart muscle gets enlarged, thick or stiffened—is a potentially serious condition that makes it hard for the heart to pump enough blood to the body. It can cause symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath and swelling of the legs. Over time, cardiomyopathy can lead to heart failure and other serious complications.

Not all risk factors for cardiomyopathy can be controlled, such as family history and age. However, obesity is a known risk factor for this condition, which can be prevented and treated.

To learn more about the impact of weight on risk for cardiomyopathy, researchers analyzed a registry of 1.6 million Swedish men who enrolled in the military between 1969 and 2005. Participants were 18 years old on average and underwent medical exams at the start of the study.

After following participants for up to 46 years, a total of 4,477 men developed cardiomyopathy. When looking at body mass index (BMI), which is a ratio of height and weight, researchers found that the greater the BMI, the greater participants’ risk for developing diseased heart muscle.

Analysis showed that men who were slightly overweight at the start of the study had 38% greater risk for developing cardiomyopathy than those with a low BMI. Obese men were more than eight times as likely to develop cardiomyopathy as those with the lowest normal BMI.

According to authors, the impact of modifiable risk factors on risk for cardiomyopathy have not been well studied in young adults. However, findings suggest that being just mildly overweight could increase risk for cardiomyopathy later in life, while being obese may increase risk more than eightfold.

The good news is that we can reduce risk for heart problems like cardiomyopathy by maintaining a healthy weight. According to guidelines, that means achieving a BMI between 18.5 and 25.  However, this study found that a BMI under 20 was preferable when it comes to reducing risk for cardiomyopathy. While it’s never too late to benefit from losing weight, achieving a healthy weight earlier in life can go a long way in preventing heart problems and promoting better health.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is a healthy weight for me?
  • A few important tools can be used to determine if an individual is underweight, normal weight or overweight. The easiest tool is a Body Mass Index, which is calculated using height and weight to estimate levels of body fat. However, Body Mass Index is not always accurate, particularly among individuals with extremely high or low amounts of muscle. In these cases, measuring waist circumference is helpful in assessing weight, as a waist circumference greater than 35 inches for a woman or 40 inches for a man is considered unhealthy.
  • What is cardiomyopathy?
  • Cardiomyopathy refers to diseases of the heart muscle, which cause the heart to become weaker and can lead to serious complications such as heart failure, abnormal heart rhythm or heart valve problems. Cardiomyopathy can vary in severity, as some patients can have no symptoms while others have debilitating symptoms that require immediate treatment. However, cardiomyopathy often worsens over time, weakening the heart and making it difficult for the heart to pump enough blood to the rest of the body.

Infographic: Obesity

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