In a new study, researchers found that a special calorie-burning type of body fat appears to help protect against an array of chronic ailments, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
They found that adults who have active brown fat tissues in their bodies are far less likely than their peers to suffer from a range of chronic illnesses.
What’s more, this protective effect holds even if the person carries excess weight.
The research was conducted by a team at the Rockefeller University Hospital.
Brown fat is found in a layer of fat under the skin, typically in a region extending from the base of the head and along the shoulders, and then down the spine.
It generates heat by drawing glucose from the bloodstream, as opposed to energy-storing white fat.
Brown fat is thought to be an evolutionary response to cold weather, helping generate heat to maintain the body’s core temperature.
However, it has been long thought to have little impact on human health because it diminishes as people age.
In the study, the team analyzed more than 130,000 PET scans from more than 52,000 patients. They then reviewed those scans to search for brown fat deposits.
Nearly 10% of the patients carried active brown fat.
But this is likely an underestimate because patients undergoing the scans had been asked to avoid cold exposure, exercise and caffeine, all of which increase brown fat activity.
The researchers verified earlier findings of brown fat—that women are more likely to carry it than men, that the amount of brown fat decreases as you age and gain weight, and that active brown fat is more likely to be found in scans done in cold versus warm weather.
But when they compared brown fat levels to the patients’ medical histories, they found new associations between brown fat tissue and better overall health in people, regardless of weight.
For example, people with active brown fat have improved levels of cholesterol and blood sugars.
They also were less likely to have high cholesterol, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
It’s not yet clear why this link might exist, but the team says healthy lifestyles may be the key.
The team says it doesn’t take extreme cold to activate brown fat, even a couple of hours in a 60-degree Fahrenheit room is sufficient.
Pharmaceutical companies also are looking into drugs that might activate brown fat and promote these benefits.
One author of the study is Dr. Paul Cohen, an assistant professor and senior attending physician.
The study is published in Nature Medicine.
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