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Obesity and Heart Disease: Connecting the Dots

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How Two Serious Conditions Are Closely Related

Posted by Rohit Soans, MD

Obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease. The reason this is so concerning is that the number of people with obesity in the U.S. continues to rise. We're also just starting to learn more about how obesity in young adults can cause early heart damage that leads to life-threatening conditions later in life.

Here, I’d like to answer common questions we receive about obesity, and how it affects your heart. I will also share some advice I give to people who are struggling with obesity about how they can treat their condition successfully to live a healthier life.

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What is obesity?

People tend to associate obesity with being significantly overweight, but it is actually a much more complex condition.

As medical professionals, we understand that obesity is a chronic condition where an increase in body fat leads to problems in the way the body stores and uses energy. It also leads to serious health issues such as diabetes and heart disease.

And obesity is not just caused by overeating. A lot goes into it, including genetics, environment and behavior. It’s a condition that’s difficult to overcome on your own.

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How do I find out if I'm obese?

You’re considered obese if you're 20% or more over your ideal body weight, and you have a body mass index (BMI) equal to or greater than 30.

Morbid obesity is defined as at least 100 pounds over your ideal weight, or you have a BMI of 40 or over. Morbid obesity can affect your everyday body functions, including breathing and walking.

You may calculate your BMI using our body mass index calculator for adults. When calculating BMI for children and teens, ages 2 through 19, age and sex may be factored into the equation, so be sure to use an age-appropriate BMI calculator or ask your child’s pediatrician for a guide.

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How does obesity affect your heart?

People who are obese tend to develop a number of conditions that lead to heart and blood vessel diseases, including:

  • Sleep apnea
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Atherosclerosis — fatty deposits in the arteries

Research studies also suggest chronic childhood obesity may kick start the process, causing damage to your heart or vessels years before you develop life-threatening heart conditions in adulthood.

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What factors are linked to an increased risk for heart disease other than obesity?

Obesity leads to a number of conditions that put you at a higher risk for heart and blood vessel diseases, including high blood pressure. In addition, choices you make in your everyday life play a significant role. These include:

Smoking, Vaping and Tobacco Use

Smoking damages your heart, and nicotine from tobacco raises your blood pressure. Secondhand smokers are also at risk from exposure. Recent studies also suggest people who vape or use e-cigarettes are more likely to have a heart attack.

Drinking Excess Alcohol

Too much alcohol can lead to high blood pressure and increased levels of a certain type of fatty substance in the blood.

  • Women should limit alcohol to 1 drink per day.
  • Men should have no more than 2 drinks per day.

Limited Physical Activity

Guidelines for optimal health suggest adults get 2.5 to 5 hours of physical activity per week.

Children ages 6 to 17 should get about 1 hour of physical activity per day, while children younger than 6 should be active throughout the day.

Poor Food Choices

Eating a diet full of saturated fats, trans fat, salt and cholesterol raises your risk of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and atherosclerosis. Diets that offer a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats support heart health.

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Are individuals who are obese at a younger age more at risk for heart disease?

The answer is yes.

Studies show damage to the heart can happen at an early age, even before detection. So kids who are chronically overweight are at risk of developing heart and vessel disease later in life. That’s why it’s so important to teach kids healthy habits early on to protect them from developing heart disease when they are older.

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Does obesity affect lifespan?

A recent study showed obesity is associated with a shortened lifespan, likely because of the increased risk of heart disease, heart failure and stroke. That same study revealed childhood and adolescent obesity is on the rise.

Children who are obese are at risk for developing heart disease later in life.

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How can someone who is obese work toward lowering their chance of developing heart disease?

If you’re obese or morbidly obese, my recommendation is usually to work with a weight-loss or bariatric surgery center that has a long-standing medically focused program. Losing a significant amount of weight is a life-long commitment and not something you want to try all on your own.

Your best bet is to approach your effort with a team who truly understands obesity, because as I mentioned earlier, it’s a very complex condition. You should expect to undergo comprehensive evaluation of your overall health, your nutrition, physical activity, eating patterns and history of weight-loss attempts.

A medically focused program should be able to develop a treatment plan that fits your lifestyle, your condition and your preferences all in one. The program may include:

  • Review and/or adjustment of medications you’re taking
  • Nutrition support with a dietitian or nutritionist
  • Increased physical activity under the guidance of a physical therapist
  • Counseling to help you reframe your attitude toward food, and manage stress or other issues
  • Bariatric surgery, if you’re a candidate

If you do choose to have bariatric surgery, make sure the program offers a robust support program to help you before and after surgery.

How will I know if bariatric surgery is an option?

Bariatric surgery may be an option for you if:

  • Your BMI (body mass index) is over 40.
  • Your BMI is 35 or above, and you have two or more medical problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea or arthritis.

Find out if you're a candidate for weight-loss surgery >

Temple offers a free informational seminar available online to help those who are interested in learning more about bariatric surgery.

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Rohit Soans, MD

Rohit Soans, MD, is Medical Director of Bariatric Surgery at Temple University Hospital. He is also Assistant Professor of Surgery at Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. His clinical interests include metabolic and bariatric surgery, minimally invasive and robotic general surgery, gastrointestinal disorders, and outcomes following bariatric surgery.

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