July 24 (UPI) -- Having belly fat could mean an early death for women who've reached menopause, a new study says.
Postmenopausal women with a body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9 inches and a waist circumference higher than 88 centimeters have a higher risk of dying compared those with normal BMI and no belly fat, according to findings published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open.
"Body mass index, which is calculated as weight divided by height, is the standard measure used to define obesity in clinical and public health guidelines," Wei Bao, a researcher at the University of Iowa and study corresponding author, told UPI. "However, BMI does not distinguish body shape or body fat distribution. Meanwhile, central obesity, characterized by relatively high abdominal fat distribution, has been associated with higher risk of mortality, independent of BMI."
The researchers looked at data for close to 157,000 postmenopausal women enrolled in the Women's Health Initiative. During a follow-up of the initiative, they discovered 43, 838 of the women died, including nearly 30 percent of cardiovascular disease and 27 percent of cancer.
This research aligns with another study that showed belly fat is linked to a heart risk of cardiovascular disease, which can lead to death.
Belly fat can also lead to insulin resistance, which past studies have linked to cancer risk.
Bao is worried women with normal BMI may think they're in good health when in fact they may need lifestyle modifications such as diet and exercise.
That's why the researchers recommend that clinical and public health guidelines add normal-weight central obesity as a risk factor for early death in postmenopausal women.
"We found that even among those women with normal weight, if they have central obesity, they are facing increased risk of mortality," Bao said. "So waist circumference should be measured regardless of BMI levels and extra attention should be paid to those with normal weight central obesity in the setting of risk reduction strategies."