Doctors generally associate obesity with heart failure. But new findings published in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggest that gaining merely a few pounds over time can harm the structure and function of the heart muscle and increase an individual’s chances of heart trouble, reports ScienceDaily.

For the study, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas tracked 1,262 participants with an average age of 44 who were free of heart disease and other conditions that put them at risk for heart disease. Fifty-seven percent were women, 44 percent were Black and 36 percent were obese. All received MRI scans of their heart and body fat measurements at the beginning of the investigation and seven years later.

Scientists found that those who gained as little as 5 percent of their body weight (41 percent of those in the study group) were more likely to suffer from thickening and enlargement of the left ventricle (a sign of heart failure) as well as a weaker heart. After researchers eliminated other factors that affected heart health (such as high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and alcohol consumption), results showed that changes in the appearance and function of the heart muscle appearance persisted.

Conversely, those who lost as little as 5 percent of their body weight (15 percent of those in the study group) were more likely to possess a thinner heart muscle. In addition, researchers determined that a participant’s initial, or baseline, weight didn’t affect these changes. (This means that even those with a normal baseline weight could face heart issues if their weight ballooned during different periods of time.)

“Any weight gain may lead to detrimental changes in the heart above and beyond the effects of baseline weight so that prevention should focus on weight loss or if meaningful weight loss cannot be achieved—the focus should be on weight stability,” said Ian Neeland, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the medical center and the study’s senior author. “Counseling to maintain weight stability, even in the absence of weight loss, may be an important preventive strategy among high-risk individuals.”

Researchers concluded that these findings don’t mean that every individual who gains weight will be at risk for heart failure. Additionally, they point out that their study was relatively small and stress the need for further research to determine whether aggressive weight management strategies can improve the effects of weight gain on the heart.

Click here to read how weight loss is key to lowering the risk of heart disease.