Research at the MGH is interwoven throughout more than 30 departments, centers and units and is conducted with the support and guidance of the MGH Research Institute. The Research Roundup is a monthly series highlighting studies, news and events.

New Research Uncovers Gender Differences for Risk of Developing Heart Disease

New research presented at the Radiological Society of North America 2017 Annual Meeting by Miriam Bredella, MD, MGH radiologist, found that the location and type of body fat can make a big difference when it comes to heart health – especially for women.

Bredella and her research team examined 200 overweight or obese but otherwise healthy adults, 91 of whom were male. All participants were of similar ages and body mass index (BMI).

The researchers found that female participants had more total body fat and more superficial “pinchable” fat in their thighs and had a lower lean body mass – the amount of weight carried on the body that isn’t fat. Male participants had more ectopic fat – a dangerous type of fat that accumulates around vital organs such as the liver and abdomen.

What’s more, the study found that the risks associated with ectopic fat differed for men and women. While ectopic fat did not increase men’s risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or stroke, it significantly increased cardiometabolic risk in women with the same BMI.

“The detrimental fat depots deep in the belly, muscles and liver are more damaging for cardiometabolic health in women compared to men,” said Bredella in an interview with Medical News Today. This discrepancy could be because men typically have higher muscle and lean mass, which are protective for cardiometabolic health, she explained.

More research is needed to better understand this discrepancy between men and women. More insights into the connections between body shape, gender and risk of coronary artery disease or other cardiometabolic disorders could also help to guide new treatment strategies for overweight patients.

Could Strenuous Exercise Be Bad for Your Heart?

A recent review of published studies conducted by Aaron Baggish, MD, director of the MGH Corrigan Minehan Heart Center’s Cardiovascular Performance Program, found that the heart health benefits associated with moderate-intensity exercise – like brisk walking, water aerobics or tennis – may not apply to high-intensity, strenuous exercise. His results were published in Current Atherosclerosis Reports.

Baggish found that, among endurance athletes, long-term training was associated with early-onset atrial fibrillation – an irregular heartbeat – changes in the size, shape, structure and function of the heart, and increased coronary artery calcifications, which increase risk for heart attacks and heart failure.

The data also suggest that long-term participation in strenuous levels of physical activity may reduce the life-saving benefits associated with moderate-intensity exercise.

The studies reviewed in his report have produced data that is worth a closer look, but Baggish says that it is too early to draw any definitive solutions. Many of the studies were too small to provide any generalizable findings.

He notes that clinicians who care for highly active patients should monitor them for signs of heart conditions, establish an open dialogue with patients and collaborate on decision making regarding exercise plans. 

Read more articles from the 02/23/18 Hotline issue.