A collection of health characteristics called metabolic syndrome raises the risk of having a heart attack or stroke or developing diabetes. In an analysis of 37 studies, the risk of a heart attack or dying of cardiovascular disease was 78 percent higher for people with metabolic syndrome than it was for those without the syndrome. Women with the metabolic syndrome were particularly at risk, having nearly three times the risk of heart attack or death than women without the syndrome.

Doctors diagnose the metabolic syndrome when someone has at least three of the following five findings:

  • abdominal obesity (waist circumference greater than 40 inches in men or greater than 35 inches in women)
  • elevated fasting triglyceride level (150 mg/dL or higher) or taking medication to lower triglycerides
  • low HDL cholesterol level (less than 40 mg/dL in men or less than 50 mg/dL in women)
  • blood pressure of 130/85 mm Hg or higher or taking blood pressure-lowering medication
  • fasting blood glucose level of 100 mg/dL or greater or taking medication for diabetes.

The metabolic syndrome affects about 76 million people age 20 and older—and more than one-third of all adults in the United States. Virtually all people with the syndrome have insulin resistance—a decreased ability of the body’s tissues to respond to insulin, a hormone that enables cells to take up glucose from the blood for use as a source of energy. In fact, insulin resistance triggers many of the characteristics of the metabolic syndrome.

Treatment of metabolic syndrome involves lifestyle measures such as weight loss, exercise, a fiber-rich diet, and smoking cessation. Medications to improve lipid levels, lower blood pressure, and control blood glucose also may be needed.

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: Roger S. Blumenthal, M.D. and Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D.

Published: 07 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 20 May 2015