Your Heart Wants To Know

Being overweight is a major risk factor for a host of health problems, including heart disease.

“Apple-shaped women and men who gain weight around their middles are up to four times more likely to have a heart attack than their pear-shaped counterparts who store excess pounds in the thighs and buttocks,” says Michael Gault, M.D., a board-certified cardiologist, at Saddleback Medical Center.

For both men and women, the wider the waist in relation to the hips, the greater the likelihood of atherosclerosis. This condition occurs when fatty deposits called plaque accumulate in the inside lining of arteries. Eventually, the build-up can significantly reduce blood flow through an artery—or even worse, rupture and create blood clots that completely block the flow of blood. The result is a heart attack or stroke.

How Can You Test Your Waist-to-Hip (WHR) Ratio?

First, measure the circumference of your waist. Then do the same around your hips where the thigh bone meets the pelvis. By dividing your waist measurement by the hip measurement, you’ll arrive at your WHR. Women with WHR ratios of more than 0.8 and men with ratios of 1.0 or greater are at increased health risk.

Hips and Thighs

But it’s not just apple-shaped women who need to be concerned. Their pear-shaped counterparts may need to be careful, too.

A recent 10-year study of over 57,000 middle-aged people linked excess weight on women’s hips and thighs to an increased risk of vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism, which involve potentially deadly blood clots. For men, it was found that blood clots resulting from these conditions were linked not to heavy hips or thighs, but to the same culprit as heart attacks—excess weight around the middle.

What can you do if your apple- or pear-shaped figure is warning you that trouble lies ahead? Although your body shape is genetically determined to a large extent, there are important steps you can take to decrease your risk of heart disease.

“While there’s no way to target weight loss to a specific area of the body such as the belly or thighs, overall weight loss will help decrease waist circumference, and thus waist-to-hip ratio,” says Gretchen Perea, R.D., a certified diabetes educator and registered dietitian at Saddleback Medical Center.

“For both apple- or pear-shaped people, diet and exercise are the two most important weapons for weight loss. Adopting a heart-healthy, low-fat diet—one that’s high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fat and cholesterol—is also a proven method for reducing the risk of heart disease.” Other important factors include not smoking and restricting alcohol use.

Genetic Risk Factors

Of course, there are some risk factors that a person can’t control: age; family history; gender (men are still at greater risk, especially when compared to pre-menopausal women); and ethnicity (African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Pacific Islanders have a higher incidence of heart disease than other groups).

But just because a person has genetic risk factors, it doesn’t mean that heart disease is inevitable. “Focusing on the things you can take charge of—your weight, physical fitness, diet, smoking habits and alcohol intake—helps minimize the impact of factors you can’t control,” says Perea. “You can’t change your genes, but you can significantly improve your odds.”

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