Another study has added to the overwhelming evidence of the negative health outcomes caused by excess weight, finding that overweight and obesity in early adulthood raises the risk for sudden cardiac death later in life. What is more, this risk may not be offset by later weight loss.

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Being overweight or obese in early to mid-adulthood may increase sudden cardiac death risk.

Lead author Stephanie Chiuve, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, says the findings – published in the journal JACC: Clinical Electrophysiology – highlight the importance of maintaining a healthy weight throughout adulthood.

Overweight and obesity are a growing health concern in the US, affecting almost 70% of adults and putting them at greater risk for stroke, heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

In this latest study, Chiuve and colleagues set out to gain a better understanding about how overweight and obesity throughout adulthood impact the risk for sudden cardiac death – unexpected death due to loss of heart function – non-fatal heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease (CHD).

To do so, the team analyzed data of 72,484 women who were part of the Nurses’ Health Study, following them between 1980-2012.

Information about participants’ weight and height at study baseline and at the age of 18 was collected and used to calculate their body mass index (BMI). Such information was also collected through questionnaires completed every 2 years throughout the duration of the study.

Over the 32-year study period, there were 2,272 cases of non-fatal heart attack, 1,286 cases of fatal CHD and 445 cases of sudden cardiac death.

The researchers found that women who were overweight – defined as a BMI of 25-30 – were 1.5 times more likely to experience sudden cardiac death in the subsequent 2 years than those with a healthy weight (BMI of 21-23), while women who were obese were at twice the risk for sudden cardiac death.

Women who were overweight or obese at study baseline or who were obese at the age of 18 had an increased risk of sudden cardiac death throughout the entire 32-year study, according to the results, and this risk was not completely overturned by later weight loss.

The team also found that the risk of sudden cardiac death was higher for women who gained weight in early to mid-adulthood; those who gained at least 44 pounds during this period were at twice the risk of sudden cardiac death, regardless of their BMI at the age of 18.

The researchers also uncovered a weaker association between higher BMI and greater risk for fatal CHD and non-fatal heart attack.

Commenting on their findings, Chiuve says:

We found that it is important to maintain a healthy weight throughout adulthood as a way to minimize the risk of sudden cardiac death.

Nearly three quarters of all sudden cardiac deaths occur in patients not considered to be high-risk based on current guidelines. We must seek broader prevention strategies to reduce the burden of sudden cardiac death in the general population.”

The team admits there are some limitations to their findings. For example, because the study participants were primarily white women, they may not apply to other ethnic groups. “Further research is needed to determine whether overweight and obesity are risk factors in multiethnic populations,” they note.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that claimed to shed light on why people who are overweight find weight loss more challenging.