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Metabolic Syndrome: The Silent Epidemic

Serious condition is linked to obesity, lack of exercise
By
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Call it a silent epidemic. An estimated one in four adults is afflicted with the condition known as metabolic syndrome, and many of them don't even know it.

Obesity and lack of exercise are key components of this dangerous condition, which puts you at risk of developing serious health problems. That makes metabolic syndrome yet another reason to adopt healthier eating and exercise habits.

Recommended Related to Metabolic Syndrome

Are You at Risk for Metabolic Syndrome

Given how common metabolic syndrome is -- it's estimated that one out of four people meet the criteria -- everyone should be worried about their risk factors. After all, metabolic syndrome can dramatically increase your risk of serious health problems, such as diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes -- yet often people don't even know what it is. Metabolic syndrome is generally defined as a cluster of risk factors, including high blood sugar, extra abdominal fat, high blood pressure, and unhealthy...

Read the Are You at Risk for Metabolic Syndrome article > >

What Is Metabolic Syndrome?

According to the National Cholesterol Education Panel, if you have at least three of the following characteristics, you're classified as having metabolic syndrome:

  • Abdominal obesity (a waist size greater than 40 inches for men, and 35 inches for women)
  • Triglyceride levels of 150 or higher
  • HDL (good cholesterol) of less than 40 in men and 50 in women
  • Blood pressure of 130/85 or higher
  • Fasting blood sugar of 110 or more

The clustering of these traits has been linked to an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, heart attack, and stroke. And the more of them you have, the greater your risk.

It's very important to "know your numbers'': your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglyceride levels (blood fats). That's because even someone who is only mildly overweight -- but who carries the extra fat around their middle and has mild high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar -- is at risk.

Most people with metabolic syndrome also have insulin resistance. That means the body does not properly use insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. An estimated 86% of people with diabetes also have metabolic syndrome.

What Causes It?

A diet high in unhealthy fats, sugars, and calories along with a lack of regular physical activity can certainly contribute to the risk factors for metabolic syndrome.

The actual causes of metabolic syndrome may be many, but researchers lean toward insulin resistance as the underlying problem.

Overweight people tend to develop a resistance to insulin -- a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels, pushing sugar into the body's cells, where it is used for energy. When you're resistant to insulin, blood sugar isn't effectively delivered into the cells. That leads to high blood-sugar levels in the bloodstream, which is one of the symptoms (and causes) of type 2 diabetes.

A Growing Problem

A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that metabolic syndrome is on the rise, especially among adults in their mid-30s. Researchers found that the young adults with metabolic syndrome had gained fat around their midsections and were much less physically active in their 30s, compared to their teen years. The researchers also noted that more men were diagnosed with the condition than women in this age group.

According to the National Cholesterol Education Program, some 24% of young adults over 20 have metabolic syndrome. That number swells to 44% by age 50.

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