Health Library

Excess weight takes a toll on the heart

Being overweight is more than a cosmetic issue. It can also increase your risk for a variety of health problems, including heart disease.

Extra pounds can drain your energy and make you uncomfortable in your clothes and self-conscious about your appearance.

But all of those things take a back seat to what those pounds can do to your heart.

"Being overweight increases your risks for heart disease and heart attack even if you have no other risk factors," says Gerald Fletcher, MD, an American Heart Association (AHA) volunteer expert.

How extra weight puts the heart at risk

According to the AHA and other health experts, being overweight can lead to:

  • High cholesterol. High blood cholesterol levels can cause a fatty substance called plaque to build up inside the arteries of the heart. Plaque can narrow the arteries and make blood clots more likely. If a clot forms, it could block an artery and cause a heart attack. Obesity can also lower HDL, or "good" cholesterol levels.

  • Diabetes. At least 68 percent of people age 65 or older with diabetes die of some form of heart disease, reports the AHA. Diabetes increases heart disease and stroke risks even when it is well-controlled.

  • High blood pressure. Your risks for heart disease and stroke go up with even slightly elevated blood pressure levels. It usually doesn't cause symptoms, so you may not know you have it until you become seriously ill.

  • Sleep apnea. This causes a person to stop breathing repeatedly during sleep. Left untreated, it can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack or stroke. Snoring or gasping during sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness are symptoms of sleep apnea.

  • Lack of exercise. Being physically inactive and being overweight can become a vicious cycle, Dr. Fletcher says. You gain weight from lack of exercise, and your extra pounds make you less likely to be active.

Does your weight put you at risk?

Doctors use body mass index, or BMI, to estimate body fat. You can learn your BMI using this calculator.

If your BMI is 25 or over, you are considered overweight, reports the AHA. A BMI of 30 or over indicates obesity, which carries even greater health risks.

Where you carry your excess weight also affects your risk.

If you carry excess weight around your waist, you may have what doctors call abdominal obesity. This puts you at greater risk for heart disease than having extra fat elsewhere, such as on the hips. If you're a woman with a waist measurement over 35 inches or a man with one over 40 inches, you are more likely to have diabetes, high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol and other risks.

Turning risks around

If you need to lose weight, ask your doctor about a program that combines healthy diet choices and exercise. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of your current weight can help lower your heart disease risk.

It's also important to know your numbers, Dr. Fletcher says. That means measuring your waist circumference and keeping track of your weight, your blood pressure, your cholesterol and your blood sugar. When you lose weight, you may notice that the other numbers improve.

"People who exercise and lose weight may need to take less medication for conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol," Dr. Fletcher says.

That's true for everyone, no matter your age.

"It's never too late to lower your risks," Dr. Fletcher says.

reviewed 10/5/2018

Related stories

This information is provided for educational purposes only. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare providers regarding medical care or treatment, as recommendations, services or resources are not a substitute for the advice or recommendation of an individual's physician or healthcare provider. Services or treatment options may not be covered under an individual's particular health plan.