By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Researchers are undertaking in-depth new studies into different aspects of obesity to help further understanding of this complex, costly health problem that increases the risk for heart disease, stroke and other serious issues.

The research, announced Friday by the American Heart Association, is crucial because nearly 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese. And if current trends continue, total healthcare costs attributable to obesity could reach up to $957 billion by 2030 — accounting for 16 to 18 percent of the country’s health expenditures.

The researchers are part of the AHA’s sixth Strategically Focused Research Network. These networks focus on specific health issues with research teams collaborating across numerous universities. Here are the four centers studying obesity using the $15 million, four-year research award, and a brief look at their studies:

  • Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland: New data suggests that the timing of calories consumed, not just the amount, can have significant effects on body weight and metabolism. Researchers will investigate the role of time-restricted feeding on obesity.
  • New York University Medical Center: The body’s natural “brakes” (or receptors) — like the ones that block effective energy expenditure — can slow metabolism, researchers speculate. The team will study one such receptor to see if it’s blocking effective weight loss after lifestyle interventions or bariatric surgery.
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham: Researchers believe that what happens in the womb is a powerful influence on long-term body weight. They’ll look at how moms with obesity, metabolic syndrome and gestational diabetes may influence their kids’ weight and health long after birth.
  • Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee: Despite understanding how obesity increases the risk for heart disease, there aren’t effective treatments to reduce the risk of heart disease in obese people. Researchers hope a customized treatment plan with new drugs that have shown promise in treating diabetes and reducing heart attacks can bring personalized medicine to those most at risk for heart disease.

The new research is needed because of the many factors related to obesity that are not fully understood, experts say.

“The science of obesity is very complicated, so we need to invest in it to combat it and make sure we investigate it from all the angles,” Jean-Pierre Després, Ph.D., professor in the department of kinesiology and faculty of medicine at Université Laval, and director of research in cardiology at the Québec Heart and Lung Institute.

Després, chair of the AHA’s Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health, has studied obesity for more than 30 years, yet decades ago he couldn’t have imagined the dramatic need for obesity-specific research. But today, about 70 percent of Americans are 20 percent or more above their ideal weight. Obesity also has an adverse effect on brain health and can lead to sleep apnea, and is a major cause of some forms of cancer, Després said.

According to the State of Obesity, 25 states have adult obesity rates of more than 30 percent, and nine of 11 states with the most obesity were in the South. Patients with a BMI of 30 or higher are considered obese and need treatment, the AHA said.

The AHA has funded other research networks studying prevention, hypertension, disparities, women and heart failure.