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Belly Fat May Raise Risk of Osteoporosis in Women


Do you remember hearing that women who are obese are at lower risk for developing bone loss and osteoporosis? Well, not so fast. Results of a new study presented at the Radiological Society of North America meeting indicate that the presence of excess internal belly fat may raise the risk of osteoporosis in women.

Excess body fat is not the same as belly fat

It turns out that all fat is not created equal, nor does it impose the same types of health risks or perform the same functions. Fat located just below the skin is called subcutaneous fat, and it contains fatty tissue, blood vessels, and nerves. This layer of fat absorbs shock to the body and stores energy.

The deeper layer of fat is visceral fat, which protects and cushions the internal organs. Diet, genetics, and exercise all have an impact on the amount of visceral fat, which is good news because that means individuals can take steps to control it. An increase in active testosterone may also be a factor. Excess visceral fat is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and death. Now it appears visceral fat also increases the risk of osteoporosis.

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To determine the impact of belly fat—subcutaneous, visceral, and total—on bone health, Miriam A. Bredella, MD, a radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, and her team studied 50 premenopausal women who had an average body mass index of 30, which is the lower limit of obesity as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Magnetic resonance spectroscopy of the lumbar spine to identify bone marrow fat along with quantitative computed tomography to determine bone mineral density was performed on all the study participants. The results indicated that women who had more visceral fat also had greater bone marrow fat and decreased bone mineral density. However, the authors did not see any significant relationship between subcutaneous fat or total fat and bone marrow fat or bone mineral density.

The conclusion of the study’s authors was that women who have excess belly fat are at greater risk for bone loss and osteoporosis than those who have more superficial fat or fat around their hips. Whether the same results are true in men is not known, but is under investigation.

Radiological Society of North America