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 a recent study at the Rockefeller University Hospital, researchers found that brown fat may help protect against 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 study is published in Nature Medicine. One author is Dr. Paul Cohen.
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 compared brown fat levels to the patients’ medical histories, and they found new links 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.
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