DALLAS — Being overweight doesn’t just increase the size of our waistlines, it can also change the structure our hearts too, even at a young age, a new study finds.

The research, published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, showed that people with a higher body mass index (BMI) in their late teens and early 20s are at risk of developing thickened heart muscles, along with higher blood pressure. Such conditions make it far more likely for a person to be diagnosed with heart disease later in life.

For the study, researchers extracted data on several thousand healthy young adults — some who are 17 years old and others who are 21 — from an ongoing study in the United Kingdom. The authors triangulated findings from three different types of genetic analysis to show that a high BMI can cause young adults to develop an enlarged left ventricle, which is the heart’s primary pumping chamber. The results also proved being overweight causes higher blood pressure.

“Thickening of vessel walls is widely considered to be the first sign of atherosclerosis, a disease in which fatty plaques build up within the arteries and lead to heart disease. However, our findings suggest that higher BMIs cause changes in the heart structure of the young that may precede changes in blood vessels,” explains Kaitlin H. Wade, lead author of the study and a research associate at the Medical Research Council Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol Medical School, in an American Heart Association release.

The authors note that while plenty of studies have linked an unhealthy BMI to poorer heart health later in life, their research is the first to do the same in young adults. The study highlights the importance of taking care of our bodies and maintaining a healthy weight in earlier stages of life when individuals may be more apt to making riskier health decisions.

“Our results support efforts to reduce body mass index to within a normal, healthy range from a young age to prevent later heart disease,” says Wade.

Because the majority of participants in the experiment were white, the authors admit the findings may not hold true for other ethnic groups. Future research could involve a more diverse sample, and the authors hope to examine any connection between BMI and other conditions.

The full study was published July 30, 2018.

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