A person has metabolic syndrome when they have a combination of three or more certain health risks. These health risks include:
- high blood pressure
- high blood sugar levels
- excess body weight
- low levels of "good" cholesterol (HDL)
- high levels of triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood)
Each of these factors alone can increase a person's risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and stroke. But the risk is much higher when these factors are found in combination.
Approximately one-quarter of Americans have this condition, although the rate is higher for certain groups of people. For example, people of American Indian and South Asian descent have higher rates of metabolic syndrome than Caucasians.
Other major risk factors that may lead to the development of metabolic syndrome include:
- age (the risk of metabolic syndrome increases as you get older)
- a family history of type 2 diabetes
- other medical conditions including high blood pressure, heart or blood vessel disease, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (a condition where a woman's body produces too much male hormones)
Metabolic syndrome is believed to develop due to insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that is produced by the pancreas (an organ located near the stomach). It helps blood sugar enter cells, where it is used for energy. With insulin resistance, the body fails to recognize the insulin that is produced, causing the sugar to accumulate in the blood instead of being absorbed into other cells. Because blood sugar levels remain high, the pancreas keeps producing more and more insulin, leading to high insulin levels. While blood sugar levels are not high enough to be classified as diabetes, they do increase the risk of developing serious health problems.
Scientists are not certain why insulin resistance develops but they believe it may be partly inherited. They do know, however, that being overweight and inactive contributes to the development of metabolic syndrome.