What is metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is a collection of heart disease risk factors that increase your chance of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. The condition is also known by other names including Syndrome X, insulin resistance syndrome, and dysmetabolic syndrome. According to a national health survey, more than 1 in 5 Americans has metabolic syndrome. The number of people with metabolic syndrome increases with age, affecting more than 40% of people in their 60s and 70s.

Who typically has metabolic syndrome?

  • People with central obesity (increased fat in the abdomen/waist).
  • People with diabetes mellitus or a strong family history of diabetes mellitus.
  • People with other clinical features of "insulin resistance" including skin changes of acanthosis nigricans ("darkened skin" on the back of the neck or underarms) or skin tags (usually on the neck).
  • Certain ethnic backgrounds are at a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome.

As you grow older, your risk of developing metabolic syndrome increases.

If I have metabolic syndrome, what health problems might develop?

Consistently high levels of insulin and glucose are linked to many harmful changes to the body, including:

  • Damage to the lining of coronary and other arteries, a key step toward the development of heart disease or stroke.
  • Changes in the kidneys' ability to remove salt, leading to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
  • An increase in triglyceride levels, resulting in an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
  • An increased risk of blood clot formation, which can block arteries and cause heart attacks and strokes.
  • A slowing of insulin production, which can signal the start of type 2 diabetes, a disease that is in itself associated with an increased risk for a heart attack or stroke. Uncontrolled diabetes is also associated with complications of the eyes, nerves, and kidneys.

What causes metabolic syndrome?

The exact cause of metabolic syndrome is not known. Many features of the metabolic syndrome are associated with "insulin resistance." Insulin resistance means that the body does not use insulin efficiently to lower glucose and triglyceride levels. Insulin resistance is a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors. Lifestyle factors include diet, activity and perhaps interrupted sleep patterns (such as sleep apnea).

What are the symptoms of metabolic syndrome?

Usually, there are no immediate physical symptoms. Medical problems associated with the metabolic syndrome develop over time. If you are unsure if you have metabolic syndrome, see your healthcare provider. He or she will be able to make the diagnosis by obtaining the necessary tests, including blood pressure, lipid profile (triglycerides and HDL), and blood glucose.

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