According to the Mayo Clinic, fat distributes itself differently if you gain weight as an adult than if you gain it as a teen or adolescent. You can actually experience redistribution of fat even if you don’t gain weight. In women in particular, fat that once seemed to accumulate on the hips and thighs may decrease, while abdominal fat increases. Aging and hormones are two reasons for this shift.
Aging and Belly Fat
As you grow older, your metabolism tends to slow down, and the amount of body fat you carry around tends to increase. Accumulation of extra fat isn’t a certainty. Some middle aged and older adults are able to keep fat levels low through diet and exercise. But for many, fat increases, and targets the midsection as you age. Menopause also increases the likelihood that you will gain weight in the mid-section.
Because a slowing metabolism is often accompanied by a drop in physical activity, the problem is often compounded. But regular vigorous physical activity coupled with a healthy diet will keep abdominal weight gain in check.
Hormones, Heredity and Belly Fat
Some people come from families that tend to accumulate fat in the midsection. Heredity is a strong predictor of belly fat accumulation. Hormonal changes after menopause sometimes alter the way the body breaks down and stores fat, causing fat cells in the abdomen to expand. Hormones such as cortisol, which is present in both women and men increase under stressful lifestyles, and high cortisol levels are also associated with accumulation of belly fat.
Why Belly Fat is Unhealthy
While you may find it more of an aesthetic problem, the belly fat that you can grab easily with your hand – subcutaneous or under the skin fat – is not as unhealthy as the fat that lies deeper within the abdomen, around your abdominal organs. This type of fat is known as visceral fat. Increasing levels of visceral fat are associated with heart disease and diabetes.
Slowing metabolism and lack of exercise can indirectly increase levels of visceral fat, as can shifting post-menopausal hormones, but heredity is the main determinant of whether you accumulate this deep level fat.
Visceral fat is unhealthy for several reasons. Too much of it increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer, high blood pressure, and gallbladder disease. The reason for many of these increased risks is that visceral fat cells, rather than lying dormant, produce hormones that can cause insulin resistance, which can eventually lead to type II diabetes. Some fat cells still produce estrogen after menopause, and while some estrogen eases the transition into menopause, too much of it is associated with increased heart disease.
While you may lament a thickening waistline as you age, the problems of increasing belly fat are more serious than just aesthetics. Fat located beneath the abdominal muscles secretes hormones that make conditions like type II diabetes and heart disease more likely. But you don’t have to simply accept this change as a normal part of aging. Just like when you were younger, regular exercise coupled with a healthy diet can help you keep belly fat under control and will have the side benefit of keeping you trim.