That's the suggestion of a new study in which Danish researchers report that excess fat that collects in the arms, legs, hips and buttocks is less dangerous to heart health than is belly or abdominal fat.
And this peripheral fat may actually be protective, say the researchers in the March 18 online issue of Circulation.
The finding echoes those of other researchers, but the Danish team also says peripheral fat can overrule the ill effects of belly fat in women who have more peripheral fat than belly fat.
"We are the first group reporting this," says study author Dr. Laszlo Tanko, a researcher at the Center for Clinical and Basic Research in Ballerup.
The researchers evaluated 1,356 women, aged 60 to 85, measuring each woman's fat mass in the trunk or belly as well as the arms and legs and also evaluating her atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
Blood glucose levels, cholesterol and blood fats were measured. Insulin resistance, a predictor of cardiovascular disease, was measured. X-rays were taken to view atherosclerosis in the abdominal part of the aorta.
Based on the measurements, the women were then categorized into four groups: lean women with low peripheral and low central fat, those with low central fat but high peripheral fat, those with high central fat and low peripheral fat, and obese women who had high central and high peripheral fat.
The average body mass indexes, a weight-to-height measurement, was 22.6 in the lean women, 24.9 in the group with high peripheral fat, 28.2 in those with high belly fat and 30.8 in those who were obese. A BMI of 25 and above is considered overweight.
Those least at risk for heart problems, the researchers found, were those with high peripheral fat but low central fat, followed by obese women and lean women. Most at risk for heart problems were women with high central fat and low peripheral fat.
The finding that obese women were somehow protected echoes other research, Tanko says. While increasing body mass index and obesity in men is associated with cardiovascular problems, the same association hasn't been found for older women, Tanko says.
The Danish researchers and others believe that hormones derived from peripheral fat are different than those produced by central fat, and that these hormones may play a key role in protecting heart health.
"Several other groups documented this favorable effect of the peripheral fat-derived hormone, adiponectin," Tanko says. But his group found that excess peripheral fat seems to overrule the ill effects of central fat on insulin sensitivity -- and thus reduce heart disease risk.
The study points out that older women's cardiovascular risk factors are different from those of younger women or of men, says Dr. Elaine B. Feldman, professor emeritus and chief emeritus of the Section on Nutrition at the Medical College of Georgia.
"Women in their 70s and older may be comforted by this finding," she says. "On the other hand, it is not a call to put on weight or to get fat."
Tanko agrees, saying that women with high belly fat levels in particular should pay attention to diet and to getting physical activity.
To calculate your body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat, see National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. For details on the American Heart Association's "Take Wellness to Heart" campaign, see the American Heart Association.