An expanding waistline is sometimes considered the price of getting older. For women, this might be especially true after menopause, when body fat tends to shift from the arms, legs and hips to the abdomen. Yet an increase in belly fat can do more than make it hard to zip up your jeans. Research indicates that belly fat also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers — even premature death. The good news? The threats posed by belly fat can be cut down to size.
What’s behind belly fat
Your weight is largely determined by how you balance the calories you eat with the energy you burn. If you eat too much and exercise too little, you’re likely to pack on excess pounds — including belly fat. However, aging also plays a role. Muscle mass gradually diminishes with age, and fat accounts for a greater percentage of your weight. Less muscle mass also decreases the rate at which your body uses calories, which can make it more challenging to maintain a healthy weight or lose excess pounds.
In addition, many women notice an increase in belly fat as they get older — even if they aren’t gaining weight. This is likely due to a decreasing level of estrogen, which appears to influence where fat is distributed in the body. The tendency to gain or carry weight around the waist — have an “apple” rather than a “pear” shape — can have a genetic component as well.
Why belly fat is more than skin deep
The trouble with belly fat is that it’s not limited to the extra layer of padding located just below the skin (subcutaneous fat). It also includes visceral fat — which lies deep inside your abdomen, surrounding your internal organs.
Although subcutaneous fat poses cosmetic concerns, visceral fat is associated with far more dangerous health consequences. That’s because an excessive amount of visceral fat produces hormones and other substances that can raise blood pressure, negatively alter good and bad cholesterol levels and impair the body’s ability to use insulin (insulin resistance). An excessive amount of any fat, including visceral fat, also boosts estrogen levels. All of this can increase the risk of serious health problems, including:
• Cardiovascular disease
• Type 2 diabetes
• Breast cancer
• Colorectal cancer
Recent research also has associated belly fat with an increased risk of premature death — regardless of overall weight. In fact, some studies have found that even when women were considered a normal weight based on standard body mass index (BMI) measurements, a large waistline increased the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease, cancer and other causes.
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