Large Waist Size Increases Cardiovascular Disease In Women

Women with a normal body mass index (BMI) but a waist size greater than 88 cm (35 inches) have three times the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than women with a waist size less than 88 cm according to a recent study published online in the journal Circulation in March of this year.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health and Harvard Medical School in Boston analyzed 44,636 women who were part of of the Nurses Health Study.

At the beginning of the study in 1976, the average age of the women was 50. The participants were followed up every two years for the duration of the 16 year study. The researchers looked for associations between a large waist size and an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and total mortality.

Over the entire study period, 3,507 deaths were observed with 1748 caused by cancer and a further 751 due to cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke. The main findings of the study are presented in the graph below.

Waist size and risk of death graph

The women with the largest 20% of waists (a waist size of 35 inches or more) were found to be 79% more likely to die from all causes of mortality at a given age compared to women in the lowest 20% of waist sizes (28 inches or less). Women in the highest quintile of waist sizes facing a 99% increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease at a given age compared to women in the lowest quintile. Cancer mortality risk was found to be 63% higher for women in the highest quintile of waist sizes compared to the lowest quintile.

The link between waist size and cardiovascular disease existed even in women within the healthy BMI range. Women with a normal BMI (between 18.5 and 25) and a waist size greater than 88cm were three times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than women with a normal BMI and a waist size of 88cm or lower.

The researchers concluded that measures of abdominal fat such as waist size and the waist to hip ratio are strong predictors of cancer mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and total mortality. Although the study consisted only of women, the authors believe that similar patterns exist in men.

A study published in 2005 in the same journal had found that a large waist size (greater than 88cm), combined with elevated triglyceride levels increased the probability of developing metabolic syndrome by 370%. Metabolic syndrome is associated with a large increase in the probability of an individual developing heart disease and/or diabetes.

The research comes on the back of a recent study suggesting that a large belly in mid-life increases an individuals risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. These studies emphasize the importance of maintaining a healthy waist size throughout life.

A healthy waist size for women is considered to be less than 30 inches (76cm) while men should aim for a waist size less than 35 inches (89cm).