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The heritability of centrally and peripherally deposited subcutaneous body fat, as measured by thickness of subscapular and triceps skinfolds respectively, was examined in 173 monozygotic and 178 dizygotic pairs of white male twins, ages 54 to 65 years, who participated in the second examination of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Twin Study. The heritability of two indices of body fat distribution (subscapular/triceps ratio and subscapular/triceps difference) and two indices of overall obesity (body mass index and sum of skinfolds) were also assessed.

Evidence for a genetic influence on central deposition of body fat was suggested in that the classical estimate of heritability for subscapular skinfold thickness was 0.77 (p < 0.0001). After adjusting subscapular skinfold for the overall level of obesity, heritability was reduced but remained highly significant (0.40, p = 0.003). Heritability estimates for triceps skinfold thickness and for the two fat distribution indices were substantially lower and were not statistically significant after adjustment for overall obesity.

High classical estimates of heritability were also observed for both measures of overall obesity: 0.70 for BMI and 0.73 for sum of skinfolds. However, these two estimates were biased upward because of lower total variances among monozygotic compared to dizygotic twins in this sample. The more conservative and unbiased among-component estimates also suggested substantial heritability for each measure (0.35, p = 0.08 and 0.53, p = 0.01, respectively). The heritability of overall obesity emphasizes the importance of adjusting measures of fat distribution for overall obesity before assessing its heritability.