Could weight loss drug Wegovy improve your heart health?

Heart Health

by Javed Butler, MD

May 22, 2024

Could a popular weight loss medication help lower your risk of heart attack or stroke? You’ve likely heard the buzz around weight loss drugs (called semaglutides) like Ozempic and Wegovy. But their benefits extend beyond weight loss—in fact, new research shows that Wegovy could lower people’s risk for cardiac events by as much as 20%.

On the heels of that research, Wegovy became the first weight loss medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this purpose. For people who are obese and at high risk of heart attack or stroke, a Wegovy prescription can be a game-changer.

But what is Wegovy, how does it work and is it the right choice for you? Here’s what you need to know.

Wegovy for weight loss

Weight loss medications are nothing new, but what makes semaglutides like Wegovy different is how they influence appetite and satiety.

Other weight loss drugs are designed to increase the number of calories burned, but they don’t address the increase in appetite that many people feel because they’re burning so many calories. Because of this, many people end up eating more food and therefore don’t lose as much weight or can’t keep the weight off.

Semaglutides seem to be more effective because they do several things:

  • Increase insulin secretion, the process where the pancreas releases more insulin into the bloodstream.
  • Decrease glucagon secretion. Glucagon is a hormone that raises blood sugar levels. Decreasing glucagon secretion helps to lower blood sugar levels.
  • Improve glucose utilization, which helps the body use sugar more efficiently for energy.
  • Delay gastric emptying and how quickly food leaves the stomach, making you feel full longer.
  • Decrease appetite, reducing the desire to eat more.
  • Increase satiety, making you feel fuller for longer.

The biggest difference is those last two points—semaglutides like Wegovy work in the area of the brain called the central hypothalamus to decrease appetite and increase satiety. That means you don't feel as hungry and you feel full faster, making it easier to lose weight and maintain that weight loss.

Wegovy for heart health

These drugs were originally developed for Type 2 diabetes and weight loss, not cardiovascular health. But new research shows that people who are obese and have cardiovascular disease not only experience weight loss, but also a decrease in their risk of heart attack, stroke and death.

It’s important to understand that this drug is marketed under two different names for two different doses: Ozempic and Wegovy. It’s the same drug, but they come in different doses for different uses—Ozempic is approved for Type 2 diabetes and Wegovy at a higher dose for weight loss and now for lowering heart disease risk in obese people.

Wegovy works to lower risk of heart attack, stroke and death from heart disease by decreasing the adiposity, or accumulation of fat, in your body. Adiposity can be systemic, impacting the health of your entire body. Excess fat that we carry in our belly or thighs can lead to chronic conditions such as:

  • Inflammation
  • Oxidative stress (a condition where your body has too many molecules known as free radicals)
  • High blood pressure

Adiposity can also be localized around a certain organ, like the heart, raising your risk for organ-related issues.

Bottom line: the driving factor for heart disease and cardiovascular events is excess fat. For people who are obese, drugs like Wegovy that cause significant fat loss can be lifesaving, reducing the risk of heart attack or stroke and putting people on the path to better well-being.

Should you get Wegovy?

So, is Wegovy a good option for you? If you are obese or overweight and at risk for heart attack or stroke due to cardiovascular disease, you may want to consider talking to your doctor about Wegovy.

Nothing in medicine is one-size-fits-all, so it’s important to have a conversation with your doctor about your individual risk factors, lifestyle and health history so you can make the best decision for your future health.

To have the biggest impact on your health, medications like Wegovy should be used in combination with heart-healthy lifestyle changes. The less dependent you are on medication, the better off you’ll be.

If you’re looking to improve your heart health, the following are good steps:

  • Eat a diet low in salt.
  • Manage your caloric intake.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Address individual risk factors (such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol).

One of the best things you can do to lose weight is exercise. But the more overweight you are, the more difficult it is to exercise, right? That’s one benefit of these weight loss drugs—for many people, it helps get them over that hump, so they lose some weight and are then able to exercise and live a more active lifestyle.

The same goes for diet as well. Many people who struggle with obesity have a hyperactive appetite center in the brain, so they feel hungry all the time. Wegovy may help reduce their appetite, making it easier for them to make healthier food choices and achieve the weight loss needed to improve their heart health.

Wegovy side effects and risks

There are side effects and risks to keep in mind when starting any new medication. That’s why talking to a physician about your individual concerns and healthy history is important.

Wegovy should not be taken by people who have a history or family history of thyroid cancers or endocrine neoplasia, any allergies to the ingredients, or previous allergic reaction or angioedema due to semaglutides.

Potential side effects of Wegovy include:

  • Can cause pancreatitis
  • Can cause gallbladder disease
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Digestive issues (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain)

If you’re worried about side effects, talk to your doctor about how to introduce Wegovy gradually and slowly increase your dose over time to help lessen any side effects you experience.

The future of Wegovy research

We’re continuing to study how medications like Wegovy can be used to optimize people’s well-being and manage various health risks.

While this FDA approval is an important step forward in improving quality of life for obese people with heart conditions, we’re now looking to prevention—why couldn’t we use medications like this to prevent heart issues in the first place?

Research is also exploring how these drugs can help manage other heart conditions like atrial fibrillation, as well as issues impacting other organs like the kidney. The good news is, lowering excess fat can have powerful effects throughout the body, meaning there are a lot of potential uses for these medications.

If you have questions about whether Wegovy is right for you, talk to your doctor or cardiologist. Or find a doctor near you today.

About the Author

Javed Butler, MD, is a cardiologist and president of the Baylor Scott & White Research Institute.

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