When it comes to heart disease, you know that risk factors like family history and being overweight don’t work in your favor, and the more issues you have, the greater your heart risk. Now, experts want to call your attention to a collection of five specific factors, because when you have them in combination—a condition called metabolic syndrome—they conspire against you, adding up to a far greater chance of suffering a heart attack, stroke or diabetes.
You have metabolic syndrome if you have three or more of the following problems:
- abdominal obesity
- high blood pressure
- high triglycerides
- abnormal cholesterol
- high blood glucose or insulin resistance
Although each factor alone increases your health risk, studies show people with the syndrome are twice as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke and more than three times as likely to develop heart disease than people without these factors.
All the components of metabolic syndrome are interrelated. Obesity and a lack of exercise often lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance contributes to poor lipid, or fat, levels in the blood, such as high triglycerides, high LDL (bad) cholesterol and low HDL (good) cholesterol. Abnormal lipid levels translate to plaque deposits in the arteries. Insulin resistance will also cause your body to churn out more insulin, but high insulin levels can impair your kidneys’ ability to process salt, raising blood pressure.
Unfortunately, many with metabolic syndrome remain undiagnosed. If you’re overweight or sedentary or have an apple-shaped body (you carry excess weight around your abdomen), you could be one of them. Your doctor will diagnose metabolic syndrome if you have three of the following:
- a waist circumference of 40 inches or more for men; 35 inches or more for women
- triglycerides of 150 mg/dL or more
- HDL cholesterol levels of less than 40 mg/dL for men and 50 mg/dL for women
- blood pressure of 135/85 mm/Hg or higher
- a fasting glucose, or blood sugar, level of 110 mg/dL or higher
In addition, your doctor may want to check for other conditions associated with the syndrome, including:
- a tendency for your blood to clot
- increased inflammation, such as high levels of C-reactive protein in your blood
- polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder in which a woman’s body produces excess male hormones
Although a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome is a warning sign to take seriously, you can head off future trouble if you take these steps now.
- Lose weight. Losing as little as 5 percent to 10 percent of your body weight can reduce insulin levels and bring blood pressure down. Reduce the calories and fat you consume.
- Eat healthier. Include more fiber-rich foods like whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables to aid weight loss and lower insulin levels. Cut out table salt; flavor your food with herbs and other spices instead.
- Exercise. Begin an exercise program in which you get at least 30 minutes of moderately strenuous activity most days of the week.
- Kick the habit. Smoking increases insulin resistance and worsens the health consequences of metabolic syndrome.
- Schedule regular checkups. You’ll need timely checks on your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels to see whether your lifestyle changes are enough.
- Consider drug therapy. In addition to diet and exercise, your doctor may prescribe aspirin therapy to reduce your heart-disease risk or medication to control high blood pressure, reduce cholesterol or improve insulin metabolism. Your doctor may consider prescribing weight-loss drugs to augment your diet and exercise efforts. Still, lifestyle changes to improve your health are imperative. Drugs alone are often not enough to fix these conditions.