A healthy body weight gives women the upper hand when menopause hits

Posted on Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Weight gain during menopause is an uncomfortable and familiar reality for many Canadian women. New research from the University of Ottawa, published in the journal, Menopause, suggests that maintaining a healthy body-mass index (BMI) in pre-menopause may have unexpected cardiovascular benefits during and after the menopausal transition.

The study, conducted by the MONET group (Montreal-Ottawa CIHR Emerging Team) showed that non-obese women entering menopause with a healthy BMI made the menopausal transition without increasing cardiovascular disease risk factors often associated with menopause. This is a significant discovery given that cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the leading causes of death for women, and the risk factors associated with this disease drastically increase after menopause.

“It is well known that menopause transition is associated with weight gain, especially in the abdominal region, and with an increase in cardiovascular disease risk,” explains Dr. Denis Prud'homme, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa, and principal investigator of the MONET group. “Our findings suggest that women who arrive at pre-menopause with a healthy body weight could go through the menopause transitions without increasing their risk of cardiovascular disease or diabetes, even if we have observed a significant change in body composition. One potential explanation could be that even if the area of visceral fat is increased, it is still under the critical threshold associated with cardio-metabolic deterioration.”

Over a period of five years, 102 healthy pre-menopausal female participants aged 47 to 55 were evaluated for body composition and cardio-metabolic changes. Researchers from the MONET group, including doctoral student Joseph Abdulnour and Professor Eric Doucet, both of the University of Ottawa's School of Human Kinetics (Faculty of Health Sciences), each year monitored women's weight, waist circumference, body composition (including fat mass, muscle mass and abdominal fat), fasting lipids, glucose and insulin levels, as well as resting blood pressure, in addition to other measurements. They discovered that despite changes in body-composition measurements and visceral abdominal fat  in non-obese women, the changes were not accompanied by a cardio-metabolic decline.

Before enrolling in the program, participants were screened to ensure they were non-smokers, had a BMI between 20 and 29, were not involved in surgically induced menopause and reported overall weight stability for a six-month period.

“Our objective was to document the effect of menopause on healthy weight women through an observational and naturalistic study with no structured intervention,” explains Dr. Prud'homme. “That is, with no structured intervention to control or reduce the weight gain associated with menopause.”

The results reinforce the potential impact and benefits of maintaining healthy lifestyle habits and a healthy BMI for pre-menopausal women. The adoption of simple and proactive strategies like measuring body weight and waist circumference once a year during the menopause transition could be a practical way to prevent the increase of cardiovascular health risks linked to menopause.

The study was supported by a grant to the MONET group from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research awarded. With researchers from  the Universities of Montreal and Sherbrooke, current research by the SOMET group (Sherbrooke-Ottawa-Montreal CIHR Emerging Team) focuses on lifestyle intervention studies to determine the potential for exercise programs and healthy diet to prevent excess weight gain in women during critical periods of their life, namely pregnancy and menopause transition, and in aging women.

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