Metabolic syndrome is on the rise: What it is and why it matters

Robert H. Shmerling, MD – Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing: Metabolic syndrome may be the most common and serious condition you’ve never heard of. (At least that’s what I found out when I asked friends and relatives about it.) Worse, a study published recently in JAMA shows that it’s on the rise.

Let’s start with the name, according to Merriam-Webster:

Metabolic: Relating to the chemical changes in living cells by which energy is provided for vital processes and activities and new material is assimilated

Syndrome: A group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality or condition.

So now you know what metabolic syndrome is, right? Perhaps not. Just knowing what the words in its name mean doesn’t help much in this case.


Metabolic syndrome defined

According to the most widely accepted definition, a person has metabolic syndrome when at least three of the following are present:

  • Obesity: A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above, or a large waistline (greater than 40 inches in men or 35 inches in women)
  • Elevated blood triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood): Above 150 mg/dL
  • Low HDL (good) cholesterol: Below 40 mg/dL in men or 50 mg/dL in women
  • High blood pressure: 130 mmHg or above (systolic pressure), or 85 mmHg or above (diastolic pressure), or previously diagnosed hypertension that requires medication
  • Elevated blood sugar: A fasting plasma glucose level of 100 mg/dL or above, or taking diabetes medications.

Why having metabolic syndrome matters

While each component of metabolic syndrome can cause health problems on its own, a combination of them powerfully increases the risk of having

  • cardiovascular disease (including heart attacks and stroke)
  • diabetes
  • liver and kidney disease
  • sleep apnea

And this only a partial list. It’s likely we’ll learn about other health risks associated with metabolic syndrome in the future.