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All weight loss isn't equal for reducing heart failure risk

Study suggests that losing fat mass, but not lean mass, is key for heart health in obese patients with type 2 diabetes

DALLAS – Nov. 9, 2020 – Reducing the level of body fat and waist size are linked to a lower risk of heart failure in patients with type 2 diabetes, a study led by UT Southwestern researchers indicates. The findings, reported today in Circulation, suggest that all weight loss isn’t equal when it comes to mitigating the risk of heart disease.

The burden of diabetes is increasing, with an estimated 700 million adults worldwide predicted to have this disease by 2045. The vast majority of cases are type 2 diabetes, characterized by insulin resistance, an inability for cells to respond to insulin. Type 2 diabetes doubles the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart failure and heart attacks.

Ambarish Pandey, M.D.
Ambarish Pandey, M.D.

Being overweight and obese are strong risk factors for both type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and patients are often counseled to lose weight to reduce the likelihood of developing both conditions. However, not all weight loss is the same, explains Ambarish Pandey, M.D., senior author of the study and assistant professor of internal medicine at UTSW.

“We have long counseled patients to lower their body-mass index into the ‘healthy’ range. But that doesn’t tell us whether a patient has lost ‘fat mass’ or ‘lean mass,’ or where the weight came off,” Pandey says. “We didn’t know how each of these factors might affect patients’ risk of heart disease.”

Fat mass accounts for fat in different parts of the body while lean mass is mostly muscle.

Understanding the relationship between heart disease and body composition has proven especially challenging, Pandey explains, because there hasn’t been an easy and inexpensive way to evaluate body composition. The gold standard of determining fat mass and lean mass is to measure it directly with tools like dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA), a scan that’s cumbersome, expensive, and exposes patients to radiation.

To help answer how different types of weight loss can affect cardiovascular disease, Pandey and his colleagues used data from the Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) Trial, which investigated the effects of either an intense lifestyle intervention focused on weight loss and physical activity or diabetes support and education in more than 5,000 overweight or obese adults with type 2 diabetes. The study collected information on the volunteers’ weight, body composition, and waist circumference at the baseline and again one and four years later. It also tracked the incidence of heart failure in this group over a 12-year period.

The Look AHEAD Trial determined body composition with DXA. But Pandey and his colleagues used a new equation that incorporates age, sex, race/ethnicity, height, body weight, and waist circumference to estimate fat and lean mass – producing results that closely matched those from DXA scans.

Among the 5,103 participants in the Look AHEAD Trial, 257 developed heart failure over the follow-up period. Pandey and his colleagues found that the more these volunteers lowered their fat mass and waist circumference, the lower were their chances of developing heart failure. Just a 10 percent reduction in fat mass led to a 22 percent lower risk of heart failure with preserved ejection fraction and a 24 percent lower risk of heart failure with reduced ejection fraction, two subtypes of this condition. A decline in waist circumference significantly lowered the risk of heart failure with preserved injection fraction but not heart failure with reduced ejection fraction. However, a decline in lean mass didn’t change the risk of heart failure at all.

These findings provide important insights, says Kershaw Patel, M.D., study author and former UTSW cardiology fellow who is now a cardiologist at Houston Methodist Hospital. “We showed that reductions in specific, not all, body composition parameters are linked to heart failure,” Patel says.

More studies are needed to determine if reducing fat and retaining or increasing muscle may be more effective at decreasing the risk of heart failure, research that’s facilitated with the new equation to estimate body composition, Pandey adds. In the meantime, he says, patients may benefit from incorporating strategies toward this goal – such as resistance training – into their weight loss efforts.

“Our study suggests that simply losing weight is not enough,” Pandey says. “We may need to prioritize fat loss to truly reduce the risk of heart failure.”

UTSW researcher Jarett D. Berry, who is a Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care, contributed to the study. Other study collaborators were Judy L. Bahnson, Sarah A. Gaussoin, Alain G. Bertoni, and Dalane W. Kitzman of Wake Forest School of Medicine; Karen C. Johnson of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; Xavier Pi-Sunyer of Columbia University Medical Center; Ursula White of Louisiana State University; and KayLoni L. Olson of Brown Medical School.

The study was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute T32 postdoctoral training grant (5T32HL125247-03), the Texas Health Resources Clinical Scholars Program, and National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants R01AG18915, R01AG045551, and P30AG21331. Relevant financial interests of the Circulation study’s authors are contained within the manuscript.

The Look AHEAD Trial was not conducted at UT Southwestern, but data from that trial was used for the Circulation study. Funding sources and disclosures for the Look AHEAD Trial are contained in the manuscript.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 23 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 13 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,500 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 105,000 hospitalized patients, nearly 370,000 emergency room cases, and oversee approximately 3 million outpatient visits a year.