Importantly, the risk is similar even when body mass index (BMI) fell within normal range, according to the authors of the study of 359,000 people aged 51.9 on average, including 65.4 percent women, appearing in Thursday's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The research found that excess fat stored around the middle of the body was a major health risk even when people are not considered obese or even overweight by statistical BMI standards.
In fact, each five centimetre increase in waist size increased the risk of death by 17 percent in men and 13 percent in women.
"The most important result of our study is the finding that not just being overweight, but also the distribution of body fat, affects the risk of premature death of each individual," said Tobias Pischon, the lead author of the paper from the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam-Rehbrücke.
The data should encourage physicians to routinely measure patients' waists as well as their BMI on routine office visits, according to the study carried out by the Imperial College London (GB), German Institute for Human Nutrition and other European participants.
"The good news is that you don't need to take an expensive test and wait ages for the result to assess this aspect of your health - it costs virtually nothing to measure your waist and hip size," said Elio Riboli, the European coordinator of the EPIC study from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Imperial College London.
"If you have a large waist, you probably need to increase the amount of exercise you do every day, avoid excessive alcohol consumption and improve your diet. This could make a huge difference in reducing your risk of an early death."