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Let’s Talk About ‘Fatty Heart’ — And If You Should Be Worried

The human heart is a fascinating, powerful organ. Doctors and scientists are learning more about it with each passing day — and in turn, so are the rest of us.

The term “fatty heart” has entered the public discussion in recent years. Maybe you’ve seen it mentioned online or overheard someone talk about it. What does fatty heart mean? What causes it? Are you at risk? We had Dr. Rajeev Kathuria, MD, a cardiac and cardiothoracic surgeon at Banner Health Clinic in Peoria, AZ, answer these questions and more. Here’s what you need to know about fatty heart.

What is fatty heart exactly?

The technical term for fat surrounding the heart is “pericardial fat.” Pericardial fat is a type of visceral fat, or fat around the organs. These visceral fats cause inflammation, which can lead to other health problems.

Fatty heart, Dr. Kathuria explained, isn’t an illness itself. Rather, fatty heart increases your risk of strokes, heart attacks and other heart conditions. The more pericardial fat you have, the more dangerous it becomes.

What causes it?

The biggest factors here are simple: how much you eat and exercise.

Let’s start with exercise. Ask yourself these basic questions:

  • Do I regularly get calorie-burning exercise, to the point that it’s a habit?
  • Could my overall lifestyle be considered “sedentary”?

If you’re generally sedentary, with no regular exercise, you’re much more likely to have fatty heart. Athletes, for example, have minimal pericardial fat. Average folks have some. And those who are overweight and sedentary will typically have the most.

Now let’s talk about food. Ask yourself a few more questions:

  • Am I consuming more calories than I’m expending?
  • Do I regularly overeat?
  • Am I consistently gaining weight and never losing it?

If you answered “yes” to those questions, your pericardial fat is likely increasing. While certain foods have more carbs, fat or calories than other foods, “fatty heart is less about what you eat and more about how much you eat,” Dr. Kathuria said.

Genetics might play a part here, too, but Dr. Kathuria said it’s much more about your lifestyle choices.

How can I find out if I’m at risk?

If you make a point to eat healthily and regularly burn calories, you probably don’t need to worry. By itself, fatty heart doesn’t produce symptoms — it simply increases your risk for other health problems.

Fatty heart can be picked up on a CT scan, but it’s incredibly rare to get a CT scan for this reason alone. More often, patients visit a doctor for other symptoms related to heart disease, and the pericardial fat is noticed on a scan.

From what we currently know, pericardial fat impacts men and women differently. Women are generally less likely to have fatty heart than men. However, women with fatty heart are at greater risk for heart failure than men with fatty heart.

It’s what’s inside that counts

Having a naturally skinny frame may not make you exempt from the risks of pericardial fat. While obesity and visceral fat typically go hand-in-hand, lower body weight does not guarantee a healthy heart. Dr. Kathuria explained, “I’ve operated on many hearts throughout my career. I’ve seen enough of them to know that fatty heart can be a problem for all body types. No matter what the scale says, maintaining healthy habits in diet and exercise is the best way to lower your risk for heart disease.”

Keeping it simple

Think of it this way: You’re better off worrying about living a healthier life than you are worrying about fatty heart. Yes, it’s possible that a person within a healthy weight who exercises often could still have fatty heart — but it’s quite uncommon. Building good lifestyle habits around food and exercise is your best bet.

If you’re experiencing heart issues, consult a medical professional. To find a Banner Health doctor, visit bannerhealth.com. You may also want to check out these related articles we’ve written with the help of Banner Health experts.

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