Harvard Women's Health Watch

In Brief: Link found between abdominal fat and gallbladder surgery

In Brief

Link found between abdominal fat and gallbladder surgery

Harvard researchers have discovered one more reason to watch our waistlines: avoiding gallstone surgery. Their study, published in the journal Gut (Feb. 14, 2006), found that women who accumulate weight around the middle are more likely to need cholecystectomy — surgery to remove the gallbladder. The research suggests that waist measurement may be a better predictor of gallbladder risk than body mass index (BMI).

Gallstones often produce no symptoms and require no treatment. But they can cause severe pain, jaundice, and inflammation of the gallbladder, bile duct, and pancreas. As a result, 800,000 cholecystectomies are performed each year in the United States. Compared to men, women are twice as likely to have gallstones, and the risk increases with age. The Gut study analyzed 14 years of data from 42,312 participants in the Nurses' Health Study. At the outset, none had gallbladder disease; by the end of the study period, the group had undergone 3,197 gallbladder surgeries.

The researchers used two measures of abdominal fat: waist circumference (see sidebar, "Where is the waist?") and waist-to-hip ratio (waist circumference in inches divided by hip circumference in inches). They found that women with waistlines of 36 inches or more were twice as likely to require gallbladder surgery as those whose waist measurements were under 26 inches. Likewise, women with waist-to-hip ratios of 0.86 or over were 39% more likely to have the surgery than those with ratios under 0.70.

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