Fat gives women strokes, says news

Today my underweight local female news reporter informed me that the number of women suffering strokes in the past few years has tripled since the numbers in the late 80’s to early 90’s, and doctors are blaming the obesity epidemic. We’re not even supposed to wonder why, of course. We’re supposed to accept the party line that Fat Is Evil and women who let themselves get fat deserve to have health problems.

But let’s – I dunno – examine the claim like researchers or something. Just for the hell of it, okay? It’ll be fun! The two time periods the study compared are 1988-1994 and 1999-2004.

Here are some quotes from her source:

In addition, women’s average body mass index, a commonly used measure of obesity, rose from 27 in the earlier survey to 29. They also had higher blood sugar levels.

No other traditional risk factors like smoking, heart disease or diabetes changed enough between the two surveys to account for the increase in strokes.

I love the word “traditional.” What it tells you is, “We are assuming our ancestors knew what the hell they were talking about.” Assumptions are not very scientific. Asking a lot of questions is a superior scientific method to rounding up the usual suspects and pinning the crime on the one that looks good for it.

In the years they’re talking about, let’s consider a few other things that have changed besides women’s belly sizes:

  • People have stopped smoking – maybe smoking really does make you lose weight, thereby preventing strokes. Now, I’m listing this one just to prove a point. I certainly hope the answer to avoiding strokes isn’t to give yourself lung cancer. But real science would look into this, and if it proved true, try to find a way to isolate the components in tobacco that are doing something good so you can make a drug from it that doesn’t cause lung cancer. But gosh, that sounds like a lot of work. Let’s just blame fat chicks instead!
  • Increased use of soy – an estrogen mimic – in processed foods. Gee, it’s funny to me how the article goes on to talk about menopause and hormones but it never occurs to them that an increase in phytoestrogens could be, like, worth taking a look at. But hey – soy is one of the biggest cash crops in America. We can’t really afford to take a close look at soy like New Zealand can.
  • As one commenter points out, a lot of us have been on birth control a decade longer than we had been in 1994. Again, the article hints at a connection between strokes and hormonal events in women’s lives. But why take a closer look at that when you can blame fat chicks?

Here’s another quote:

Women’s waistlines are nearly two inches bigger than they were a decade earlier, and that bulge corresponds with the increase in strokes, researchers said.

While I don’t expect them to spend much time debating whether the fall of Communism, which also corresponds with this time period, could have anything to do with the increase in strokes, I do have to ask: what about hip size? Thigh size? Muscle mass? Are women having kids later, and could that be anything to do with it (yeah, I hope not too, but if I were researching this, I would ask)? Anemia? Hypertension? Increase in sugar (in all forms) consumption? Smog and pollution? Global warming? Did anybody look at increases or decreases in good cholesterol, which protects you from strokes and lots of other stuff almost like a magic pill, and bad cholesterol, which makes you sick?

Nah, that belly thing jumped right out at them, ’nuff said.

It happened even though more women in the recent survey were on medicines to control their cholesterol and blood pressure — steps that lower the risk of stroke.

Er, wait – this is interesting. I mean, clearly, what I’m supposed to get from this is that fat is so evil it defeats medications. But strangely, I find myself thinking (a) maybe researchers don’t actually know what the “steps that lower the risk of stroke” are, if they took them and it didn’t work and (b) if those researchers don’t know what they think they know, why should I trust these?

I’ll grant that I don’t know how sensible the original study was. I’ve seen some good studies get totally twisted by the news agencies, and I’ve seen some damn stupid medical studies. It may be that a thicker waist line has something to do with a stroke, but the report as it stands is a huge leap based on the cultural assumption that fat chicks suck.

On a hopeful note, more than a few commenters on the article seem unwilling to make that leap. Unfortunately, they are the minority.


  1. Dom Camus says

    I think the main error taking place here is the one we always see where statistical work is reported in the media. There is talk of correlation, immediately followed by speculation that the correlation could correspond to causation.

    Well, it could. But the other probable explanation is shared cause. That is, perhaps some common element – possibly diet-related – is a contributory factor to both obesity and strokes.

    It’s a common pattern I see in health journalism: to talk about obesity as though it is a cause more than an effect. And indeed in many cases to imply that the cause of obesity is some kind of moral failing in the individual concerned.

  2. Robin says

    I have a couple of questions.

    Does the report mention if the studies focused on women in a certain age range? If not, then a big contributing factor to an increase in strokes could be an increase in lifespans. Or a general increase in old people, for that matter. The Baby Boomers are reaching their sixties now, which puts them at greater risk for all sorts of health problems, including cardiovascular disease.

    Are they claiming that a greater percentage of women are having strokes, or just greater numbers? I mean, there are more people in the world now than there were ten years ago. And a larger percentage of them are middle-aged or older. Without having seen the report or the original studies myself, it sounds like their “math” is suspect.

    I can’t say that some of their observations don’t have merit. People in general are getting fatter. As a society, we’re becoming more sedentary and eating larger portions of less healthy food. There’s still a bigger focus on dieting (in order to perpetuate the diet industry, I suspect) than on simply maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It’s the report’s conclusions that have me irked. As usual, the media has latched on to one aspect of a scientific inquiry and come up with its own erroneous – or at least incomplete – answers.

  3. says

    Dom, I think you’re right. I have to say I feel doctors can also leap to the fat conclusion – I’ve dealt with PCD/PCOS most of my life, and the only “treatment” they know is losing weight. I was 114 pounds and fat free when I got diagnosed. Their response: “Some women have to get underweight to beat it?” So I completely shot my metabolism trying to get down to 109 – trying, actually, to lose muscle mass because I thought I was “fat” and to blame for the PCOS. Now I really am overweight and fully insulin-resistant – recently a year with a trainer and two different diets only made me gain – and new research is realizing that whoops, it might be the PCOS that causes the weight gain and not the other way around. (Which doesn’t help my prognosis, but at least I’m not being made to feel like a disgusting lazy fool anymore.)

    Robin, this is just from the link in the article (that’s all I have) but the initial survey that all the theory was based on says:

    Nearly 2 percent of women ages 35 to 54 reported suffering a stroke in the most recent federal health survey, from 1999 to 2004. Only about half a percent did in the previous survey, from 1988 to 1994.

    So there’s the age range, and that is the group the theories are based on, I guess. (Assuming the reporting is accurate.)

    And they’re talking about a percentage, not flat numbers. So that much is valid, I think. I just still think there are a ton of other factors to examine. Because we’ve found “correlations” between bigger waistlines and certain problems does not – as Dom pointed out – mean bigger waistlines are the “cause” of those problems, ergo it might be really dense to suggest they’re causing strokes.

    Another factor I wondered about was the changing racial composition of the sample group. Hispanic women make up a much larger percentage of the population now than in 1994. I haven’t a clue whether they are more or less likely to have strokes than anyone else, nor does the report tell me if they were included in the study (I would assume, but it doesn’t say), but I do know race is sometimes a factor in medicine (whether it’s a genetic issue or the fact that a particular race has less access to good nutrition, medical/pre-natal care, etc.).

  4. says

    CL, yes it does relate, because it reinforces the point: that unless this study is a LOT more complete than the press indicates, it’s premature to say “fat causes strokes”. Yet that’s the way the press reports it, and everyone’s so used to thinking “Ugh, fat is so bad!” that they don’t even think to question it.

  5. firebird says

    That daytime dozing thing is interesting. I’ve been working for the past 6 months on a project involving CPAP machines (the forced air breathing machine that people with sleep apnea use to keep them breathing while they are sleeping). I have had very interesting conversations with the various patients, some of whom are themselves doctors or nurses of various kinds. More than once, one has told me that sleep apnea untreated is bad for the heart (and, for the same reasons – lack of oxygen – one would assume bad for the brain!). The reason what C.L. mentioned brings this up is that many of the patients I’ve talked to talk about being tired, falling asleep during the day when they sit down, and waking feeling like they didn’t sleep were their only warning signs of sleep apnea before the sleep test that determined they were stopping breathing during their sleep.

    Sleep apnea does have a weight component – I don’t know what it is, but higher air pressure tends to correlate with higher weights (and gender, men’s pressures tending to be higher than women’s) in my complete unscientific experience (about 225 people). But I have also been told (by medical professionals) that sleep apnea also has a structural component; the structure of the mouth and throat causes it to close up and block the air. Surgery is possible to correct it in some cases but apparently is undesirable for some reason or not completely effective as it seems rare.

  6. fexz says

    Re. waistline measurements: An increase in belly fat puts people (not just women!) at an increased risk for diseases such as type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome. The increase in belly fat could be caused by higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and stress has been posited as a risk factor for stroke. Now, if the hip size and thigh size had also proportionately increased then that would indicate an increase in subcutaneous fat and an overall weight increase, which is generally not caused by an increase in stress hormones. (sorry to bore you with details– it’s just that this might be why waist circumference was mentioned. But you’re right, researchers should be looking into more variables, and presenters and science writers should do a better job of reporting the details)

  7. says

    Fexz, fat doesn’t put people at risk for anything. It may be an indicator, which is to say it may tend to co-exist with other conditions, but it can also exist in individuals who never develop the conditions, which is why it’s a pretty useless measure. (Correlation, however strong, does not equal cause.)

    You’re much better off looking at someone’s bloodwork than their waistline. That will always be true, under any conditions, no matter what. Research that wants to simplify things to something a doctor can measure instantly without any particular training in how to read a something as complex and potentially misleading as a blood panel is bullshit research, end of story.

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