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Fat distribution in black and white women may help predict heart disease

A woman’s body shape – often described as pear, apple or hourglass – is usually determined by the amount of fat in various regions of the body including the bust, waist, arms and hips. New research from Emory University School of Medicine suggests that these patterns of fat distribution may help predict arterial stiffness – a precursor to cardiovascular disease.

Stiff arteries make the heart work harder to pump blood and are associated with atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaques in vessels that can block blood flow and cause a heart attack.

Noting that fat distribution generally differs between black and white women’s bodies, researchers enlisted 68 black women and 125 white women, all middle-aged, to see whether these patterns could help assess cardiovascular risk.

The study, conducted by Danny Eapen, MD, a cardiology fellow at Emory, used data from Emory’s Center for Health Discovery and Well Being. He presented his findings recently at the American Heart Association’s Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 2011 meeting.

Using skin calipers, the researchers measured subcutaneous fat in seven sites: the upper chest; midaxillary, or the side of the torso just under the armpit; triceps, or the back of the arm; subscapular, or on the back just below the shoulder blade; abdominal; suprailiac, or just above the front of the hip bone; and the thigh.

“Black women have higher rates of cardiovascular disease than white women and are more likely to die from it,” says Eapen. “Black and white women also have different patterns of fat distribution, so we were interested in measuring these pockets of fat at various regions of the body to evaluate whether it might be helpful in predicting cardiovascular risk between the two groups.  Our hope was to evaluate whether a quick, easy-to-use clinical tool could aid in further risk stratifying our female patients.”

The study also assessed the arterial stiffness of the women, adjusting for heart rate.

As a group, the black women had greater arterial stiffness than the white women. They also had more subcutaneous fat in the armpit, triceps, shoulder blade and hip bone areas.

In addition, they also found specific race dependent pockets of fat that could be related to arterial stiffness – fat measurements in the triceps area could predict increased arterial stiffness in black women, while fat in the suprailiac areas was a predictor in white women.

Content contributed in part by Sarah Goodwin, Emory’s Center for Health Discovery and Well Being.

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