Across the United States, there is a silent killer taking its toll on men and women of all ages and ethnicities. It’s name: heart disease. Today, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for 1 in 4 deaths every year—that’s 600,000 people. While many factors can contribute to the development of heart disease, experts are pointing to obesity as one of the leading causes for this deadly diagnosis.
What is Heart Disease?
The term “heart disease” encompasses several types of heart conditions, most commonly coronary artery disease. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease can cause heart attack, arrhythmia, angina, and heart failure.
This occurs as a result of damage caused to the heart or blood vessels by atherosclerosis, or a buildup of plaque in the arteries. When arteries are blocked or stiff due to plaque buildup, blood flow from the heart to the body’s organs and tissues is restricted.
Obesity & Heart Disease
One of the most common causes of developing atherosclerosis is being overweight or obese. Other related causes include lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet. It comes as no surprise then, that as rates of heart disease have risen, so have rates of obesity. According to the American Heart Association, more than one-third (34.6%) of adults and 13 million (16.9%) of children in the United States are obese.
While it is commonly accepted that triggers, like a lack of exercise and unhealthy diet as associated with obesity, can indirectly lead to heart disease, a recent study found that a direct link exists as well. The American Heart Association conducted longitudinal studies, which found that obesity independently predicts atherosclerosis in both men and women.
Also, a study conducted by British and Danish researchers revealed similar findings. The researchers analyzed data from more than 75,000 people in Copenhagen and found that individuals with a high BMI had a 26 percent greater risk of developing heart disease. The study also showed that an increase of four BMI points increased their risk by at least 56 percent.
Borge Nordestgaard is chief physician at Copenhagen University Hospital and notes that the findings say a lot about the link between obesity and heart disease. “By doing epidemiological studies combined with genetic analysis, we have been able to show in a group of nearly 76,000 persons that a high BMI is enough in itself to damage the heart,” he says.
Co-author Dr. Nicholas Timpson agrees. “In light of rising obesity levels, these findings are fundamental to improving public health,” he says. “Our research shows that shifting to a lifestyle that promotes a lower BMI — even if it does nothing else — will reduce the odds of developing the disease.”
The National Institute of Health asserts that the duration of obesity can affect a person’s risk of developing heart disease. Based on a longitudinal study conducted with Caucasian and African-American young adults, researchers concluded that each year a young obese adult raises their risk of developing heart disease by 2 to 4 percent.
The best way to prevent heart disease is by taking care of your body. That includes avoiding tobacco and exercising at least 30 minutes each day. It is also important to maintain a healthy weight. Typically, an effective way to measure weight in adulthood is with a body mass index (BMI), which measures the amount of fat in the body in relation to a person’s height and weight. A BMI greater than 25 is considered overweight, while a BMI of 30 and above is considered obese.
Diet can also play a role in maintaining a healthy weight and heart. Avoiding foods with saturated and trans fats, such as fried foods and red meat, are advised. Following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet can be beneficial to heart health as well.