Study Says Liposuction Helps Heart Health; Doctors Are Skeptical

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Liposuction helped more than 200,000 Americans get rid of excess fat in 2010 alone. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) reported that it's the fourth-most-popular cosmetic procedure. But new research suggests that the benefits of liposuction may go beyond the waistline.

A new study reports that patients who get liposuction not only shed pounds, but also may be lowering their risk of heart disease.

Researchers studied levels of cholesterol and "bad" fats called triglycerides in the blood of more than 300 patients who were undergoing liposuction. Patients who had elevated triglyceride levels before the procedure showed an average 43 percent reduction in their triglyceride levels after they had liposuction.

The patients showed no changes in their cholesterol levels, but researchers did find a post-liposuction reduction in counts of white blood cells, which are associated with heart attacks, obesity, strokes and high blood pressure.

The study was presented at ASPS's annual conference in Denver on Sunday.

"This is the first study we've ever had that has shown there are more beneficial effects to liposuction than just to someone's self-image," said Dr. Anthony Youn, a plastic surgeon in Detroit. "And who wouldn't mind looking better and being healthier at the same time?"

But doctors don't think you should call a plastic surgeon just yet. The study was a small one, and doctors need more evidence that liposuction is effective in lowering the risk of heart disease before they recommend it to patients.

"What is shown is a lowering of triglycerides, and I think we have to stick with that," said Dr. Christopher Cannon, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "The link to a lower risk of heart disease is a longer stretch."

Cannon added that lower triglyceride levels may not necessarily make a person heart-healthy.

"While we think it is bad to have high triglycerides, the issue of whether lowering triglycerides actually lowers the risk of heart disease has not been shown," he said, noting that some drugs that aimed to reduce heart disease risk by lowering triglycerides were not successful in clinical trials.

Even though liposuction may slim your figure, it doesn't remove all of the body's heart-clogging fat. Liposuction removes fat just beneath the surface of the skin, called subcutaneous fat.

Dr. Carl "Chip" Lavie, medical director of preventive cardiology at the John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in New Orleans, said a person's heart disease risk is not just skin deep.

"A lot of people would rather not have the subcutaneous fat because it makes them not look as good," he said. "But generally, visceral fat around the internal organs is what gives you the problem with heart disease."

Lavie added that he'll have to wait to see more studies of liposuction before he's convinced it does more than make people look better.

"I'm not against liposuction. It's pretty low risk, but it's cosmetic," he said. "I'm very skeptical that the benefits go beyond that."

Losing weight the old-fashioned way -- with a modest, healthy diet and regular exercise -- is still the method that most doctors recommend for keeping heart disease at bay.

Dr. Howard Weintraub, clinical director for the Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease at New York University, said liposuction may be an easier way to slim down, but probably won't pay off over time.

"Liposuction is an expensive procedure, and it's not going to foster the kinds of eating habits and lifestyle habits that are going to keep triglycerides down for the long term," he said.

Dr. Youn agreed that the link between liposuction and heart health is still weak and patients who get it need to be studied further.

"Obviously, liposuction is never going to be a substitute for a good diet, regular exercise and maintaining healthy weight," Youn said. "But the fact that it has a potential additional positive benefit is worth knowing."

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