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A new study looks at the health impacts of having excess weight over a decade. ljubaphoto/Getty Images
  • New findings suggest that the longer you have excess weight, the higher your risk of sustaining a stroke or heart attack.
  • People who have had excess weight for at least a decade had up to a 60% increased risk of cardiac issues.
  • Researchers say the study findings may help physicians treat people before they develop full-blown heart disease.

New research has found that for many people, the longer you have excess weight, the higher your risk of sustaining a stroke or heart attack.

These findings were identified via a research team that included members from Harvard and pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, who sponsored it. The research was presented at the recent Endocrine Society’s Annual Meeting this month.

The researchers looked at people with a BMI of over 25, which would classify them as a person having overweight. The data used for the study came from two long-standing research gathering efforts, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. Of the 109,259 women and 27, 239 men whose data was analyzed, 8.8% of participants had sustained a cardiac event between 2000 and 2020.

The researchers found that for men under 65 and for women under 50, having excess weight for over a decade was linked to a 25-60% increase in cardiovascular events such as stroke or heart attack.

However, those findings did not hold for women over 50 and men over 65. No data was available for men under 35. This study has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Matthew I. Tomey, MD, a cardiologist at the Mount Sinai Fuster Heart Hospital, says that findings will help physicians treat patients earlier.

“For far too long we have started far too late in addressing modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease,” Tomey said. ” A growing body of evidence is teaching us as cardiologists that subclinical cardiovascular disease [before it is diagnosable] is brewing beneath the surface in our 20s and 30s. Earlier identification of subclinical disease and earlier proactive efforts to control controllable risk factors are huge opportunities to decrease the world’s burden of cardiovascular disease on a large scale.”

Alexander Turchin, MD, MS, an associate professor in Harvard’s medical school and director of quality in diabetes at Bringham and Women’s Hospital, said the study’s findings could help people improve their health.

“I think what I want them to take away is that if you have excess weight at any point in time, it doesn’t seal your fate. You can still make a difference in your health if you reduce this excess weight over time and decrease your excess weight exposure,” said Turchin, who presented the study.

Philip Nimoityn, MD, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and cardiologist with Cardiology Consultants of Philadelphia, says that these findings are in line with updated guidance for heart health.

“A number of years ago, the focus was on decreasing lipid levels, saying that lower is better. The new mantra is lower for longer because, in reanalysis of long-term lipid-lowering and cardiovascular risk studies over many years, it’s now been shown that if you intercede and interrupt risk at a young age, you have much more chance of decreasing future disease and events.”

Nimoityn points to newer options for medications that can reduce cardiovascular inflammation—a precursor to cardiac events— like the FDA’s 2023 approval of Lodoco as one area where advancements are being made.

Tomey also highlights the American Heart Association’s public guidelines, which focus on lifestyle changes including diet and exercise to stay heart healthy.

“The more disciplined a person is over time in maintaining a healthy diet, regular physical activity, abstinence from tobacco, restorative sleep patterns, a healthy body weight, and ideal levels of blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose, the more likely they are to avoid development and progression of preventable cardiovascular disease,” Tomey said.

Experts who spoke to Healthline stressed that looking at an indicator like body mass index, which was the marker used in the study, is an important part of the picture, but not the whole picture.

“It’s not a perfect measurement, and we know that,” Turchin said. “But measurements that are better are not routinely available, not routinely done in everyday care, they’re harder to do, potentially harder to get right…Keeping excess weight for a long time is not great for somebody’s health and puts them at increased risk of heart attack and stroke.”

Michelle Routhenstein, MS, RD, owner of Entirely Nourished, says people need to be aware of their cardiac health through more lenses than just their weight.

“I can’t tell you how many people get dismissed from their doctor because they don’t look like they have heart disease. And so because they’re an athlete because they’re thin and they’re not cardio metabolically healthy, a lot of their doctors will be like, No, you’re fine. You eat healthy, you exercise, don’t worry. And then they have a coronary artery event,” Routhenstein said.

New research finds people who have had excess weight for over a decade are at higher risk for cardiac events.