Despite increasing research and clinical significance, limited information is available on how the visceral and subcutaneous adipose tissue (VAT and SAT) compartments develop during growth and maturation and then vary in volume across the adult lifespan. The present study aimed at exploring how adipose tissue compartments partition across the lifespan.
Total body VAT and SAT were quantified in an ethnically-diverse cross-sectional sample of healthy subjects ages 5 – 88 yrs [children (5–17 years): males n = 88, BMI percentile (X ± SD), 61.9 ± 27.1; females, n = 59, BMI percentile, 60.0 ± 28.4; adults (≥ 18 yrs): males, n = 164, BMI, 25.6 ± 3.7 kg/m2, and females, n = 188, BMI, 25.5 ± 5.4 kg/m2]. Subjects completed a whole-body magnetic resonance imaging scan and images were then segmented for VAT and SAT; total compartment volumes were calculated from respective slice areas. Sex and age distributions were evaluated by generating quadratic and cubic smoothing lines fitted to the data. Plots were developed with and without adjustment for total adipose tissue, ethnicity, and menopausal status in women. VAT and SAT volumes were both larger with greater age.
In adulthood, VAT was larger in males than in females with and without adjustment. In contrast, SAT volume was larger in females than in males after entering puberty and sex differences remained, with and without adjustment, across the remaining lifespan.
Based on observations made in this cross-sectional sample, VAT and SAT volumes were variably larger with greater age across most of the human lifespan, although the relatively small number of children warrants future larger scale studies to validate our observations. Moreover, the pattern and magnitude of adipose tissue "growth" differed between males and females, with the mechanistic basis of this sexual dimorphism only partially understood. These descriptive observations in a large cross-sectional cohort provide an initial foundation for future longitudinal and cohort studies.