This stuff may protect you from many chronic diseases, study of 50,000 people shows

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Brown fat is that magical tissue that you would want more of.

Unlike white fat, which stores calories, brown fat burns energy, and scientists hope it may hold the key to new obesity treatments.

But it has long been unclear whether people with ample brown fat truly enjoy better health. For one thing, it has been hard to even identify such individuals since brown fat is hidden deep inside the body.

In a new study, researchers found strong evidence: among over 52,000 participants, those who had detectable brown fat were less likely than their peers to suffer cardiac and metabolic conditions ranging from type 2 diabetes to coronary artery disease.

The research was conducted by a team at the Rockefeller University Hospital.

Although brown fat has been studied for decades in newborns and animals, it was only in 2009 that scientists appreciated it can also be found in some adults, typically around the neck and shoulders.

From then on, researchers have scrambled to study the elusive fat cells, which possess the power to burn calories to produce heat in cold conditions.

Large-scale studies of brown fat, however, have been practically impossible because this tissue shows up only on PET scans, a special type of medical imaging.

In the study, the team reviewed 130,000 PET scans from more than 52,000 patients and found the presence of brown fat in nearly 10% of individuals.

Several common and chronic diseases were less prevalent among people with detectable brown fat.

For example, only 4.6% had type 2 diabetes, compared with 9.5% of people who did not have detectable brown fat.

Similarly, 18.9% had abnormal cholesterol, compared to 22.2% in those without brown fat.

Moreover, the study revealed three more conditions for which people with brown fat have lower risk: high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and coronary artery disease—links that had not been observed in previous studies.

Another surprising finding was that brown fat may mitigate the negative health effects of obesity.

In general, obese people have an increased risk of heart and metabolic conditions; but the researchers found that among obese people who have brown fat, the prevalence of these conditions was similar to that of non-obese people.

The actual mechanisms by which brown fat may contribute to better health are still unclear, but there are some clues.

For example, brown-fat cells consume glucose in order to burn calories, and it’s possible that this lowers blood glucose levels, a major risk factor for developing diabetes.

The role of brown fat is more mysterious in other conditions like hypertension, which is tightly connected to the hormonal system.

It is possible that brown fat tissue does more than consume glucose and burn calories, and perhaps actually participates in hormonal signaling to other organs.

One author of the study is Paul Cohen, M.D., Assistant Professor and senior attending physician.

The study is published in Nature Medicine.

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