Metabolic Syndrome Creeping Up on Women—How to Stop It
Women are catching up with men.
But not in a good way.
According to a 2006 study, it used to be that more men than women had metabolic syndrome—a dangerous cluster of risk factors that identify people at a high, long-term risk for narrowed arteries, cardiovascular disease, stroke, peripheral vascular disease (PVD), and type 2 diabetes.
But in recent years, the number of people who have this syndrome has increased, and that increase is steeper in women.
Women who have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are even more at risk—they’re up to 11 times more likely to have metabolic syndrome than those without PCOS.
Could you be at risk? Here’s more, and how to protect yourself.
What is Metabolic Syndrome?
Though most of us didn’t hear about metabolic syndrome until the last decade or so, it’s actually been around for a long time. According to a 2006 study, scientists created a description of what they called “syndrome X” in the 1980s, but the idea that a cluster of components could indicate that a person was at risk for future cardiovascular disease has been around for 100 years or more.
In 1998, the World Health Organization developed a working definition, and a year later came up with a list of criteria that doctors could use to make a clinical diagnosis. At that time, if a patient had type 2 diabetes, and at least two of the following four factors, they were said to have metabolic syndrome:
- High blood pressure
- High blood fat
- Traces of protein in the urine
People who didn’t have diabetes, but who showed an insensitivity to insulin, could also be at risk.
Researchers later found some flaws in this definition, and improvements were made. Today, a number of health organizations, including the International Diabetes Federation; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and American Heart Association; agree that a patient must have three of the following five risk factors to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome:
- Belly fat: Also called central or abdominal obesity, it’s the presence of excess fat in the middle. Doctors use a waist circumference measurement to determine this risk factor. Women who have a measurement of 35 inches or more qualify.
- High triglycerides: A blood test can measure the level of triglycerides (unhealthy fats) in your body. A level of 150 mg/dL or more is considered too high.
- Low HDL cholesterol: HDL “good” cholesterol is considered protective against heart disease. Having a level that is too low creates a risk of problems. Women who have a measurement of 50 mg/dL or less are considered to qualify for this risk factor.
- High blood pressure: A level of 130/85 mmHg or higher is considered too high.
- High blood sugar: A level of 100 mg/dL or higher qualifies a person for this risk factor.
If a doctor determines that a patient has three or more of these risk factors, that patient is diagnosed with metabolic syndrome.
What Does it Mean to Have Metabolic Syndrome?
The American Heart Association (AHA) states that about 34 percent of adults have metabolic syndrome, which puts them at risk for the following:
- Atherosclerosis and peripheral vascular disease—diseases related to fatty buildup in the walls of the arteries
- Coronary heart disease and heart attack
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Fatty liver disease
Because of the rise in obesity rates in this country, more and more women are at risk for this syndrome. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, with rates being similar for women and men. Nearly 10 percent of the population has diabetes—15.5 million men and 13.4 million women, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Risk also increases as we age, affecting more than 40 percent of people in their 60s and 70s, and its prevalence is rising all over the world. Unfortunately, it’s a “quiet” syndrome, meaning that there are usually no symptoms, and people may be unaware that they have it until something more severe—like a heart attack—happens.
In fact, according to the International Diabetes Foundation (IDF), people with metabolic syndrome “are twice as likely to die from, and three times as likely to have a heart attack or stroke compared to people without the syndrome.”
Metabolic Syndrome and Women’s Health
Why is the prevalence of metabolic syndrome rising in women? Scientists aren’t sure, but they suspect it has something to do with activity. The 2006 study mentioned above noted that physical inactivity as we age is more prevalent in women than in men. The results of a 2012 study suggested that women were at a greater risk for metabolic syndrome because they were less likely to do at least 30 minutes of exercise a day.
In other words, women are more likely to lead sedentary lives as they get older than men are, which can increase their risk.
“It’s pretty striking what happens to you if you don’t meet that 30 minutes a day of activity,” said researcher Bradley Cardinal.
Then there’s PCOS. A common disorder among women of reproductive age, it causes the female body to produce too many male hormones (androgens), which can result in symptoms like weight gain, irregular menstrual cycles, excessive body or facial hair, and cysts on the ovaries. The condition is also associated, however, with complications like diabetes, sleep apnea, and heart and blood vessel problems.
A 2006 study reported that nearly half of women with PCOS end up with metabolic syndrome as well. Researchers added that PCOS was the most common cause of increased cardiovascular risk in young adult women.
A 2009 study found similar results, and also reported that adult women with metabolic syndrome may experience reproductive problems, similar to women with PCOS, more commonly than women in the general population, suggesting that these two conditions often occur together, no matter which one may come first.
Treatments for metabolic syndrome are the same for women regardless of whether they have PCOS or not. The good news is that with early detection, women can help improve their odds of avoiding the typical consequences associated with this dangerous condition.
How to Turn Metabolic Syndrome Around
Metabolic syndrome is similar to cardiovascular disease, in that what we choose to do in our daily lives can have a big influence on the outcome. In other words, healthy habits can disarm the syndrome and protect your long-term health.
The main goal of treatment is to reduce risk of heart disease and diabetes. First approaches typically include:
- Weight control: Since overweight and obesity are one of the major factors in this syndrome, getting control of a patient’s weight is usually the first step. Even moderate weight loss of only 5-10 percent of body weight has been shown to help reduce the risk that metabolic syndrome will cause more serious illnesses.
- Exercise: The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderately vigorous physical activity. They add that short, 10-minute sessions can be just as effective as longer ones.
- Watch your diet: Cutting back on high-fat and high-sugar foods and eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats can help you lose weight and also reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Some studies have found that a Mediterranean diet, supplemented with nuts and extra-virgin olive oil, can help significantly reduce risks of heart attack and stroke.
- Medications: Certain medications can help control some of your risk factors, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. There are also medications that can help increase HDL “good” cholesterol and help cut back on high triglyceride levels, and of course, there are medications to help control blood sugar levels.
- Treat sleep apnea: Sleep apnea is considered a risk factor for heart disease. Treating it can also help control metabolic syndrome.
- Manage PCOS: If you have PCOS, managing it as best you can also helps reduce the effects of metabolic syndrome.
- Get adequate vitamin D: A 2010 study suggested that people who don’t get enough vitamin D—women are at risk for deficiency (read more here)—are more at risk for metabolic syndrome.
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