According to a new study published in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS), a thicker waistline may be a strong indicator of anxiety in middle-aged women. 

The researchers analyzed data from 5,580 middle-aged women from 11 Latin American countries who were between 40 and 59 years old. Of the participants, 57.9% were post-menopausal and 61.3% reported having anxiety.

Anxiety was assessed using the Goldberg Anxiety and Depression Scale, while the waist-to-height ratio (WHtR) was calculated according to World Health Organization standards. The participants were categorized into upper, middle, and lower tertiles using 0.45 and 0.6 as cutoff values.

The use of WHtR, determined by dividing your waist by your height, was considered the best indicator to assess cardiometabolic risk and abdominal fat. According to the general guidelines, a woman can be considered obese if her waist measures more than half of her height.

The results of the study revealed that a little under 56% of women in the lower third had anxiety. Meanwhile, the figures were higher for the other two groups at 59.7% in the middle third and 68.4% in the upper third.

"Hormone changes may be involved in the development of both anxiety and abdominal obesity because of their roles in the brain as well as in fat distribution," said Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, executive director of the North American Menopause Society.

In 2016, a nationwide study in the UK suggested a recent trend where anxiety levels peaked in middle-aged people. Dr. Helen Webberley, GP for Oxford Online Pharmacy, explained that she had observed a rise in middle-aged patients, particularly women.

"We tend to see more cases in women and I agree, it seems to peak in the forties and fifties," she said. "There may be various reasons for this but the typical scenario I see is patients with the burden of one or more jobs, the demands of children and running a home, and then the added worry and stress of caring for elderly relatives."

In the new study, it was noted that women in the middle and upper tertiles of waist-to-height ratios were significantly more likely to have anxiety than women in the lower tertiles. Furthermore, the women in the upper tertile were more likely to display signs of anxiety compared to the two other groups. Researchers note that the rise in frequency of anxiety in middle-aged women may be a result of decreased levels of estrogen (which has a neuroprotective role).

Typically characterized by strong mental symptoms, anxiety can also manifest itself in physical ways. The disorder remains a concern due to its association with heart disease, diabetes, thyroid problems, respiratory disorders, and drug abuse.

"This study provides valuable insights for healthcare providers treating middle-aged women because it implies that waist-to-height ratio could be a good marker for evaluating patients for anxiety," Pinkerton added.