The first FWW Women’s Health Research Fund award is supporting a study concerning the causes of abdominal fat accumulation during menopause, lead by Wendolyn Gozansky MD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center. “Without support from FWW, I wouldn’t have obtained the preliminary data that I needed to secure NIH funding for a more comprehensive study of estrogen-mediated regulation of abdominal fat,” says Dr. Gozansky. “As the NIH [National Institutes of Health] budget cuts are making it more and more difficult to get research funded, support from groups like FWW are critical to foster the next generation of investigators in women’s health.”
Excessive abdominal fat, also known as central obesity, is a significant risk factor for diabetes and heart disease, even more so than total body fat. This is because fat in the abdominal area is linked to elevated blood sugar levels resulting from insulin resistance or pre-diabetes. Too much abdominal fat is also associated with lower healthy HDL cholesterol and higher unhealthy LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Prior to menopause women tend to store fat in the hips and thighs rather than in the abdomen. As a woman enters menopause and estrogen levels decrease, abdominal fat deposition increases putting women at greater risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and cancers of the breast or colon. How estrogens prevent abdominal fat accumulation is unknown; however studies in rodents find estrogen deficiency increases the conversion of the inactive hormone cortisone to the active hormone cortisol, a potent stimulus of abdominal fat deposition. Mice genetically engineered to lack the enzyme that converts cortisone to cortisol were resistant to the development of central obesity. Conversely, mice engineered to have higher levels of this enzyme in fat cells had increased accumulation of abdominal fat, which lead to the same health risks seen in centrally obese humans.
Dr. Gozansky’s research is specifically examining how estrogen levels in women affect the conversion of cortisone to cortisol, triggering an increase in abdominal fat. The study’s design will enable researchers to separate the effects of sex hormone deficiency from the more general effects of aging and provide new findings for developing therapies that could potentially mitigate this health risk. “This research is vital because women now live many vibrant years after the menopausal transition when heart disease becomes a major health threat, in fact the leading cause of death in women,” says Sharon Cravitz, FWW’s Executive Director. “FWW had one research award to give and we received dozens of requests from top-notch physicians working on relevant and tangible health issues affecting millions of women. The need throughout women’s health is tremendous, it was difficult to choose just one.”