One Major Effect of Belly Fat on Early Death Risk, New Study Finds

Excess belly fat is commonly associated with diabetes and heart problems, but a recent study shows it may be time to add another serious risk factor to that list.

There’s little debate that strong, flat abs are an aesthetically pleasing sign of people who take care of themselves through consistent exercise and healthy eating. Turns out, a trim tummy can also say a lot about what’s going on under the skin.

It’s important to understand the two types of belly fatsubcutaneous and visceral…and, according to a recent Norwegian study published in the British Medical Journal‘s BMJ Open, both these belly fat types can increase one major risk factor in older adults. 

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How might belly fat and early death be linked?

Subcutaneous fat sits just under our skin and might be thought of as the kind of tissue that allows you to “pinch an inch,” as the 1980s Special K commercial used to call it. 

On the other hand, visceral fat—often considered the more dangerous fat—is fat that lives in our abdominal cavity where it wraps around organs, gets into our arteries, and leads to a host of health problems, according to a report from Johns Hopkins Medicine

Explains Mary Claire Haver, MD, a board-certified OB-GYN who specializes in hormone wellness and is certified in culinary medicine: “Visceral adipose tissue, a hormonally active component of total body fat, has distinct biochemical properties that affect a number of healthy and unhealthy bodily functions.” Dr. Haver continues: “Medical conditions like metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and numerous cancers like prostate, breast, and colorectal cancer are linked to elevated levels of this belly fat.”

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The belly fat & frailty study

One 2015 study in the journal American Family Physician explained that frailty, a geriatric condition that may affect up to nearly 20% of older adults, can lead to “adverse health outcomes.” Symptoms of frailty are listed as “generalized weakness, exhaustion, slow gait, poor balance, decreased physical activity, cognitive impairment, and weight loss.”

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So to come back to the Norwegian belly fat study, for 21 years, the researchers in Norway tracked metrics from 4,500 men and women over the age of 45 years to measure key indicators of frailty: exhaustion, grip strength, walking speed, unintentional weight loss and low physical activity. “Study participants who were obese at the beginning of the study were more likely to suffer from frailty at the study conclusion,” Dr. Haver explains of the researchers’ results. “And those who developed elevated levels of visceral fat during the study also were more likely to suffer from frailty at the end of the study.”

So while there’s classically been an assumption that people who are thin and lacking muscle are “frail,” this study suggests that being older and overweight may also cause frailty.

To further the link between belly fat, frailty, and early death, the study notes that frailty “is associated with an increased risk of adverse events such as falls, disability, hospitalization, reduced quality of life and mortality.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that falls are the leading cause of injury, and death from injury, in Americans over 65. CDC data from 2020 suggested 36 million falls among older Americans are reported each year, with more than 32,000 of those resulting in death.

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Sources
  • BMJ Open, “Body mass index, waist circumference and pre-frailty/frailty: the Tromsø study 1994−2016
  • American Family Physician, “Frailty: Evaluation and Management
  • Johns Hopkins, “The Skinny on Visceral Fat
  • Dr. Mary Claire Haver, a board-certified OB-GYN who is also certified in culinary medicine
  • National Institute on Aging, “Falls and Fractures in Older Adults: Causes and Prevention
Medically reviewed by Latoya Julce RN, BSN, on February 18, 2023

Jaime Stathis
Jaime Alexis Stathis is a nonfiction writer whose favorite topics are humans, technology, animals, wildlife, and the places where they intersect. She writes about health, wellness, technology, nutrition, and everything related to being a human being on a constantly evolving planet. Her work has been published in Self, Wired, Parade, Bon Appétit, The Independent, Rachael Ray In Season, and others. She is also a Licenced Massage Therapist. Jaime is working on a novel about a heroine who saves herself and a memoir about caring for her grandmother through the dark stages of dementia.