Upside? A Few Extra Pounds May Protect Against Hot Flashes

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The common wisdom among doctors suggests that heavier women have more hot flashes during menopause. But a small study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism adds a wrinkle to that thinking, finding that the relationship between weight and hot flashes may depend on a woman’s age.

The study included 52 women experiencing hot flashes, but not taking medication to treat them. Researchers measured the women’s body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage and waist circumference. They also tracked hot flash episodes by using a skin-conductance monitor in the lab and by asking participants to self-report hot flashes at home using an electronic diary.

Contrary to previous research, the new data showed that women with higher body fat percentages, higher BMIs and larger waists had fewer hot flash episodes. The association was stronger in white women and in women over age 60.

That extra weight might have an effect on menopausal symptoms makes some sense, said an expert interviewed by HealthDay:

“Being heavier means more body fat that can convert androgens into estrogens,” explained Dr. Spyros Mezitis, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. That should mean that heavier, postmenopausal women will have more circulating estrogen than lean postmenopausal women, “which would explain the fewer hot flashes in the heavier postmenopausal women,” he said.

Given that weight had a significant effect on hot flashes only in older women, however, the findings provide a “more nuanced understanding of the relationship between body size and hot flashes, emphasizing the important role of age,” said lead author Rebecca Thurston of the University of Pittsburgh in a statement.

And despite the apparent benefit of weight in older menopausal women, it may be far outstripped by the drawbacks of carrying too many extra pounds over a lifetime. Being overweight leads to a higher risk of becoming insulin resistant and developing metabolic syndrome, which in turn puts people at higher risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Rather than hanging onto extra pounds before menopause, aging women are better off making healthy weight a priority for overall health and well-being.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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