WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A quick check around the waist with a tape measure may be a better way of telling if you are at risk of heart disease than stepping on a scale, researchers said Monday.
Several studies have shown waist size is clearly linked with heart attack, stroke and heart disease risk.
Even if people are not overweight, those with larger waistlines are more likely to show the early signs of heart disease than those with smaller waists, the team at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas reported.
"Inches are as important as pounds," Dr. James de Lemos, a cardiologist who led the study, said in a telephone interview.
Writing in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the researchers said they have started a long-term study of 2,744 people with a median age of 45.
They used magnetic resonance imaging and electron beam computed tomography scans to look for early signs of clogged arteries and found a direct relationship between waist size and early indications of heart disease, regardless of the patients' overall weight.
"It's a straight-line relationship all the way down to the lowest levels," de Lemos said.
"This isn't the kind of thing that is only relevant if you are one of the obese people."
Several studies have shown waist size is clearly linked with heart attack, stroke and heart disease risk. U.S. government guidelines now say men should aim to have a waist 40 inches in circumference or less -- 35 inches for a woman.
The Dallas researchers found no absolute cutoff. They simply found that the smaller a person's waist, the clearer his or her arteries were observed to be.
"Our study was the first really large study to dig in the preclinical stage. So we are looking at people who haven't yet had a heart attack or stoke, and people at earlier ages," de Lemos said.
After accounting for high cholesterol, high blood pressure and other known heart factors, the researchers found that weight alone did not predict a person's chances of having early artery clogging.
Waist size, however, did.
"As a young adult, you have got to make some serious lifelong choices about maintaining your body shape," de Lemos said. "You have to fight, every day, this middle age creep in terms of belt size. Food is plentiful, it's cheap and it is high caloric and most of us work sedentary jobs."
"It's a day-to-day, meal-to-meal battle, but it's worth fighting. Even a small pot belly puts us at higher risk when compared to a flat tummy," de Lemos said. E-mail to a friend
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