Cardiovascular and Metabolic Heterogeneity of Obesity: Clinical Challenges and Implications for Management

Circulation. 2018 Mar 27;137(13):1391-1406. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.029617.


The prevalence of obesity has increased globally over the last 2 decades. Although the body mass index has been a convenient and simple index of obesity at the population level, studies have shown that obesity defined by body mass index alone is a remarkably heterogeneous condition with varying cardiovascular and metabolic manifestations across individuals. Adipose tissue is an exquisitely active metabolic organ engaged in cross-talk between various systems; perturbation of adipose tissue results in a pathological response to positive caloric balance in susceptible individuals that directly and indirectly contributes to cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Inadequate subcutaneous adipose tissue expansion in the face of dietary triglycerides leads to visceral and ectopic fat deposition, inflammatory/adipokine dysregulation, and insulin resistance. Conversely, preferential fat storage in the lower body depot may act as a metabolic buffer and protect other tissues from lipotoxicity caused by lipid overflow and ectopic fat. Translational, epidemiological, and clinical studies over the past 30 years have clearly demonstrated a strong link between visceral and ectopic fat and the development of a clinical syndrome characterized by atherogenic dyslipidemia, hyperinsulinemia/glucose intolerance, hypertension, atherosclerosis, and adverse cardiac remodeling/heart failure. This relationship is even more nuanced when clinical entities such as metabolically healthy obesity phenotype and the obesity paradox are considered. Although it is clear that the accumulation of visceral/ectopic fat is a major contributor to cardiovascular and metabolic risk above and beyond the body mass index, implementation of fat distribution assessment into clinical practice remains a challenge. Anthropometric indexes of obesity are easily implemented, but newer imaging-based methods offer improved sensitivity and specificity for measuring specific depots. Lifestyle, pharmacological, and surgical interventions allow a multidisciplinary approach to overweight/obesity that may improve outcomes and align with a public health message to combat the growing epidemic of obesity worldwide and to build healthier lives free of cardiovascular diseases.

Keywords: adiposity; cardiac imaging techniques; cardiovascular diseases; obesity; risk factors; waist circumference.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / metabolism
  • Adiposity
  • Appetite Depressants / therapeutic use
  • Body Mass Index
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / etiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Metabolic Diseases / etiology
  • Metabolic Diseases / pathology*
  • Obesity / complications
  • Obesity / drug therapy
  • Obesity / pathology*
  • Risk Factors


  • Appetite Depressants