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Belly fat increases the risk of stroke in women

American doctors have observed that strokes have tripled in recent years among middle-aged women, a trend that they blame on the obesity epidemic.
By Marilynn Marchione | AP, New Orleans
UPDATED ON FEB 21, 2008 11:16 PM IST

Strokes have tripled in recent years among middle-aged women in the United States, an alarming trend doctors blame on the obesity epidemic.

Nearly two per cent of women ages 35 to 54 reported suffering a stroke in the most recent federal health survey, from 1999 to 2004. Only about half a per cent did in the previous survey, from 1988 to 1994.

The percentage is small because most strokes occur in older people. But the sudden spike in middle age and the reasons behind it are ominous, doctors said in research presented on Wednesday at a medical conference.

It happened even though more women in the recent survey were on medicines to control their cholesterol and blood pressure — steps that lower the risk of stroke.

Women’s waistlines are nearly two inches bigger than they were a decade earlier, and that bulge corresponds with the increase in strokes, researchers said.

In addition, women’s average body mass index, a commonly used measure of obesity, rose from 27 in the earlier survey to 29. They also had higher blood sugar levels.

No other traditional risk factors like smoking, heart disease or diabetes changed enough between the two surveys to account for the increase in strokes.

In a “pre-stroke population” of middle-age women, a tripling of cases is “an alarming increase,” said Dr Ralph Sacco, neurology chief at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

The study was led by Dr Amytis Towfighi, a neurology specialist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and presented at the International Stroke Conference in New Orleans. She used the National Health and Nutrition Surveys, a federally funded project that gives periodic health checkups and questionnaires to a wide sample of Americans. Participants are routinely asked whether a doctor had ever told them they had had a stroke, and about 5,000 middle-aged people answered that question in each survey.

Researchers saw that the stroke rate had spiked in middle-aged women but stayed about the same — around one per cent — in middle-aged men. So they looked deeper at the responses to see if they could learn why.

Belly fat stood out, Towfighi said. The portion of women with abdominal obesity rose from 47 per cent in the earlier survey to 59 per cent in the recent one. The change in men was smaller, and previous studies have shown that “abdominal obesity is a stronger risk factor for women than men,” she said.

Men traditionally have had a greater risk of stroke than women, and “women start catching up to men five or 10 years after menopause,” said Dr Philip Gorelick, neurology chief at the University of Illinois in Chicago and chairman of the stroke conference.

The new research means “we need to redefine our textbooks about stroke in women” because they may now be more at risk in middle age than men.

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