How is obesity a risk factor for heart disease?

Dr. Paul R. Kemmeter, MD
Bariatric Medicine (Obesity Medicine) Specialist

Two of the biggest health issues facing many men and women in America today—obesity and heart disease—can be tied together and can be life threatening. Obesity shortens people’s lives, and one of the ways that it does that is by affecting the heart. Indeed, obesity and heart disease go hand in hand.

Obesity is related to many cardiovascular risk factors for heart disease: traditional risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, for example. But obesity itself can affect the heart in ways that only became understood about 10 to 15 years ago.

In addition, carrying 50, 100, or 200 extra pounds of weight can add stress to your body. Excessive body weight due to obesity forces the heart to pump more blood which puts more stress on the heart. In addition, hormones are released by the fat cells and these directly affect the entire health system, including the heart.

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Dr. Samin K. Sharma, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Yes, obesity is a well-known risk factor for heart disease. Obesity by increasing the body mass for which heart has to pump the blood, puts extra stress and increase oxygen demand of the heart. Truncal obesity ('protruding belly') is especially harmful because it causes insulin resistance and promotes further plaque build up.

Excessive weight gain elevates the risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and atherosclerosis—all major factors in heart disease. Researchers with the Framingham Heart Study found that “obesity was associated with an approximately 50 percent increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation” (an abnormal heartbeat that can lead to stroke and cardiac arrest). “Once you get atrial fibrillation, it may be very difficult for doctors to get you back into the normal rhythm,” warns study author Dr. Thomas Wang, “and what that means . . . is that the patient may be stuck with a lifetime of taking medications to protect against stroke and other complications.”

Being overweight or obese also increases the risk for diabetes and, according to the American Diabetes Association, an obese person with diabetes is two to four times more likely to develop heart disease and suffer a stroke or heart failure than someone who maintains a healthy body weight.

Yes, people who have more body fat, particularly around the waist, are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke even if they have no other risk factors. Being overweight or obese makes your heart pump harder. Excess weight increases your blood pressure, lowers your good (HDL) cholesterol levels, raises your bad (LDL) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and increases the risk of diabetes.

Obesity, particularly abdominal obesity or “belly fat”, is associated with insulin resistance that often leads to type 2 diabetes and heart attack. While poorly understood, we now know that adipose or fatty tissue is a major endocrine organ that produces hormones just like other organs in the body. Adipose fat secretes pro-inflammatory chemicals that increase low-grade inflammation, a problem with many chronic diseases.

Research shows that as fat tissue increases, the blood vessels feeding this tissue are not adequate to maintain a normal oxygen supply, resulting in a localized reduction of oxygen. This triggers pro-inflammatory reactions, which can trigger more cell-damaging substances in the body. Obesity causes this response to get out of control, and thus, adds to serious health problems such hypertension, heart attack, diabetes, and some types of cancer.

Obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease. In addition, obesity increases the risk of higher cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar, all of which are risk factors for heart disease. Obesity all by itself doubles the heart disease risk.

Dr. Kelly Traver

Obesity is considered an independent risk factor for heart disease, particularly if you have a lot of fat accumulation around the waist. Remember that fat cells are not just storage sites. They secrete more than a hundred different chemicals into your body. Some of these chemicals initiate inflammation, which is at the heart of plaque buildup and heart attacks, so when you allow large fat stores in your body, you are asking for trouble.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.