Abdominal fat is a better predictor than body weight of postmenopausal women developing some types of cancer — but not ovarian cancer, according to a Danish study.
It reported that women with a lot of abdominal fat are at higher risk of developing lung or gastrointestinal cancers. The fat did not increase the risk of them developing ovarian or breast cancer, however.
The team presented the study at the European Society for Medical Oncology Congress in Madrid, Sept. 8-12.
Postmenopausal women are prone to gaining weight, and the study adds a new perspective to that issue.
Line Mærsk Staunstrup, a doctoral student at the University of Copenhagen who works at Nordic Bioscience, led the research. It was titled “A study of body fat composition, derived from DXA-scans, in association with cancer incidence in postmenopausal women.”
“When assessing cancer risk, body mass index (BMI) and fat percentage may not be adequate measures as they fail to assess the distribution of fat mass,” she said in a press release. “Avoiding central obesity may confer the best protection.”
The research covered 5,855 women. They were part of the Prospective Epidemiologic Risk Factor study, which investigated age-related diseases in postmenopausal women in Denmark.
Staunstrup discovered 811 solid cancers among the women – 293 breast and ovarian cancers, 345 lung and gastrointestinal cancers, and 173 cancers that fell into other categories. The ratio of the women’s abdominal fat to their fat in other areas was a significant predictor of cancer up to 12 years after the study started, she found.
Body mass index was not a significant cancer predictor. And abdominal fat predicted only lung and gastrointestinal cancer.
The risk of a patient developing cancer increased with age, smoking and taking hormone replacement therapy, Staunstrup learned. When she controlled for these factors, abdominal fat remained the best predictor.
On average, the women were 71 years old. Researchers used dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DXA, to assess their body fat and abdominal fat when the study began and for 12 years thereafter.
Late middle-aged women “can very much use this information, as it is known that the menopause transition initiates a shift in body fat towards the central trunk area,” Staunstrup said. So they should be “especially aware of their lifestyle when they approach the pre-menopause age.”
Doctors can use the information to discuss cancer preventive with women who are at higher risk, she said. While doctors “have access to whole body DXA scanners at most hospitals, portable DXA scanners have become available on the commercial market,” she noted. “This may allow regional bone and fat scanning,” although they may not be the best ways to measure abdominal fat, she added.
Andrea De Censi, a doctor at Galliera Hospital in Genova, said the study also generated valuable information on the connection between obesity and insulin resistance. Because fat cells can increase inflammation, and insulin can hamper hormone production, abdominal fat may increase the risk of women developing a number of cancers, he said.
“While obesity has previously been linked to cancer risk, the link to lung cancer is new and intriguing,” he said. “Increases in insulin, resulting from over-consumption of simple carbohydrates such as potatoes, wheat, rice and corn, result in fat accumulation that is specifically visceral and abdominal.”
He added that “these data open the door for clinicians [doctors] to initiate a number of interventions in obese patients. In addition to fat loss with diet and exercise, there may be a potential role for a diabetes drug, such as metformin, which can lower insulin effects and contribute to cancer prevention.”