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THURSDAY, Oct. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Menopause does not cause weight gain, but it does increase belly fat, according to a new study.
"It is a myth that the menopause causes a woman to gain weight. It's really just a consequence of environmental factors and aging that cause that," study leader Susan Davis, a professor at Monash University in Australia, said in an International Menopause Society news release.
"But there is no doubt that the new spare tire many women complain of after menopause is real, and not a consequence of any changes they have made," Davis said. "Rather, this is the body's response to the fall in estrogen at menopause -- a shift of fat storage from the hips to the waist."
Davis and her colleagues reviewed available scientific findings on the issue, and their findings appear in the October issue of the journal Climacteric. The review was conducted by the International Menopause Society to mark World Menopause Day on Oct. 18.
Increased abdominal fat increases the future risk of metabolic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, in women, the review said. It also noted that, contrary to popular belief, estrogen therapy (hormone replacement therapy, or HRT) does not cause women to gain weight. Evidence shows that HRT can prevent abdominal fat from building after menopause.
Women should take early steps to ensure they don't put on extra weight after menopause, the International Menopause Society advised.
"What this translates to in real terms is that women going through menopause should begin to try to control their weight before it becomes a problem, so if you have not been looking after yourself before the menopause, you should certainly start to do so when it arrives," Davis said.
"This means for all women being thoughtful about what you eat and, for many, being more active every day," she added. "Estrogen therapy can also help. But each woman is different, so at menopause it is important to discuss your health with your doctor."
In midlife, women tend to gain an average of one pound per year. This can have major health consequences, as being overweight or obese is associated with many problems, including depression, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
"Heart disease is by far the No. 1 killer of postmenopausal women, and this risk is increased by excess weight," International Menopause Society President Tobie de Villiers said in the news release.
"Women need to be aware of this, especially at menopause when estrogen levels drop," de Villiers said. "A woman may need to adjust her lifestyle to ensure a healthier life after the menopause."
"I would say that a woman should consider using menopause as a marker, a reason to review her overall health with her doctor so she can make her own decisions on how her life moves forward," de Villiers concluded.
The U.S. Office on Women's Health has more about menopause.