Making a distinction between ‘good’ subcutaneous abdominal fat and ‘bad’ visceral abdominal fat, which sits under the abdominal muscles and surrounds the organs, is important when determining the risks of developing diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. To this end, the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) has developed and validated a new ultrasound technique. The technique is cheaper and less burdensome than CT or MRI scans, which are often used for the same purpose. Researcher Emanuella de Lucia Rolfe has demonstrated that measuring abdominal fat with ultrasound gives reliable results in babies, children and adults. De Lucia Rolfe will be awarded a PhD on 30 January 2012 by the University of Groningen for her research.
Obesity is a well-known risk factor for developing diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, but the location of the fat is at least as important. Subcutaneous fat has a minor effect on the development of atherosclerosis (thickening of the arteries), a larger amount of visceral fat is linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular diseases. This also applies to diabetes type 2, adult-onset diabetes. In order to determine the effects of preventive measures against cardiovascular diseases in detail, it’s very important to be able to differentiate properly between subcutaneous and visceral fat.
Performing an ultrasound is simpler, less burdensome and cheaper than scans with CT or MRI. The latter two techniques are often not possible in large-scale medical studies or in research on children due to ethical and practical constrains. With the help of the ultrasound technique, it is possible to accurately assess the amount of subcutaneous abdominal fat between the skin and the peritoneum, and how much visceral fat there is between the peritoneum and the spine. De Lucia Rolfe thus concludes that ultrasound is a suitable and reliable method for quantifying both types of abdominal fat.
Research on the distribution of abdominal fat is particularly relevant in very young children in order to determine the effects of preventive measures on the development of obesity. De Lucia Rolfe researched the relationships between birth weight, the amount of subcutaneous and visceral fat, the speed of weight gain after birth, and breastfeeding. She showed that a swift weight gain in the first months of life led to an increase in visceral abdominal fat. A positive effect of breastfeeding was that children between 3 and 12 months old developed less visceral abdominal fat than children who were bottle-fed.
Emanuella de Lucia Rolfe (Stoke-on-Trent, UK, 1975) studied health sciences at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. She conducted her research at the Department of Epidemiology of the UMCG and the MRC Epidemiology Unit in Cambridge, UK. Her research was financed by the Medical Research Councils (MRC) in the UK and South Africa, the UMCG, Hutchinson Whampoa Ltd., the Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, the World Cancer Research Fund International, the European Union (Framework V programme) and the Mothercare Group Foundation. After gaining her PhD, De Lucia Rolfe will continue to work for the MRC Epidemiology Unit in Cambridge, where she will continue to cooperate on projects with the UMCG. The title of her thesis is ‘The epidemiology of abdominal adiposity: validation and application of ultrasonography to estimate visceral and subcutaneous abdominal fat and identify their early determinants.’
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