A woman sitting in a chair at home takes her blood pressureShare on Pinterest
Monitoring your blood pressure is a good way to lower your risk of metabolic syndrome, experts say. Oscar Wong/Getty Images
  • Unhealthy traits such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels can lead to the development of metabolic syndrome.
  • Researchers say these traits can also increase a person’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
  • They said higher blood pressure in particularly serious, especially for middle-aged women.
  • Experts say you can lower your risk of metabolic syndrome with healthy diet and exercise routines, especially those that target belly fat.

Middle-aged adults who feel otherwise healthy but have mildly high blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose as well as higher waist circumference might experience a heart attack or stroke two years earlier than their healthier peers.

That’s according to a Swedish study presented today at the European Society of Cardiology’s Congress 2023. The research has not been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.

The risk factors listed in the study, taken together, are known as metabolic syndrome and have been linked in previous studies to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

The researchers studied a group of nearly 35,000 adults in their 40s and 50s. They reported that participants with metabolic syndrome had a 35% higher risk of heart attack and stroke than those without it.

In addition, adults with metabolic syndrome had non-fatal heart attacks or strokes 2.3 years earlier than those in the control group, the researchers noted.

“This study highlights the importance of routine checkups with a primary care provider to screen blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol issues, as well as discuss lifestyle habits to reduce cardiovascular disease risk,” said Dr. Tonia Vinton, an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Texas and a specialist on metabolic syndrome who was not involved in the study.

“If we forgo routine follow-ups because we feel well, we may miss years of warning signs, such as elevated blood pressure or cholesterol, before a major adverse cardiovascular event,” she told Medical News Today.

What makes metabolic syndrome a serious condition is that not only might you feel well and have one of these elevated risk factors, but even if you have one — such as slightly high blood pressure — you might not be understanding the totality of your risks.

The American Heart Association classifies metabolic syndrome as having three or more risk factors, including:

  • A waist circumference of more than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women
  • Blood pressure at or above 130/85 mm/Hg.
  • Fasting blood glucose levels of 100 mg/dL or above.
  • Blood triglycerides levels of 150 mg/dL or higher.
  • HDL cholesterol levels of 40 mg/dL or less for men and 50 mg/dL or less for women.

“The findings of this study underscore the critical nature of metabolic syndrome and the significant risk it poses to the health and well-being of many individuals, often unbeknownst to them. Therefore, it’s essential to ask your healthcare provider about the healthy ranges and the optimal numbers for each health metric and how you can measure them at home or a local pharmacy,” said Kelsey Costa, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for the National Coalition on Healthcare who was not involved in a study.

“Regular monitoring can aid in early detection, allowing timely intervention and reducing the risk of severe health complications,” she told Medical News Today.

“However, there is a problem with this approach,” noted Michal Mor, a doctor of cardiology science and co-founder of Lumen, a company that makes an at-home metabolic health trackers for consumers.

“While regularly monitoring these parameters can provide valuable information, asking people to do monthly check-ins, analyze trends in each parameter, or extract medical insights can be overwhelming and challenging,” Mor, who was not involved in the new study, told Medical News Today.

Costa agreed.

“Our healthcare system, while effective at treatment, is something of a reactionary institution, addressing problems as they arise rather than focusing on early prevention,” she said. “This approach can lead to a delay in the necessary intervention, ultimately exacerbating the problem.”

The study authors highlighted that elevated blood pressure was a particular risk for earlier stroke and heart attack, especially among middle-aged women.

“Young women often have a lower risk of developing hypertension due to the protective effect of endogenous estrogen,” Costa explained. “However, as women age and enter menopause, the decrease in estrogen levels can lead to an increased likelihood of hypertension, underscoring the importance of regular blood pressure monitoring and management in post-menopausal women.”

Mor concurred.

“After menopause, as estrogen levels decline, there’s a rise in cortisol levels and an increase in insulin resistance. This, in turn, can lead to an accumulation of abdominal fat, which further exacerbates insulin resistance,” she said. “These changes compromise the integrity of blood vessels, leading to heightened blood pressure and reduced metabolic flexibility. A decline in metabolic flexibility intensifies the risks of conditions like heart disease and stroke.”

So what do about it?

“I wish I could give a simple three-tip solution to all metabolic issues,” Mor said. “However, our bodies are unique and constantly evolving. It’s crucial to measure and understand how specific habits impact us individually.”

There are some basic interventions, however, that anyone can practice to improve their metabolic health.

For instance, lifestyle modifications that target belly fat might also target other metabolic syndrome risk factors, Vinton said.

“Lifestyle modifications that target reducing central adiposity are most beneficial in treating metabolic syndrome,” she advised. “These strategies include reducing sugary beverages, eating a healthy diet, reducing processed foods, not smoking, and engaging in routine physical activity (30 minutes daily and/or a daily step count to get to 8,000 or 9,000 steps).”

For example, at least one study showed that an hour of resistance training weekly could reduce metabolic syndrome risk significantly.

“Healthy living comes down to four main pillars: diet, exercise, stress management, and sleep,” Lisa Moskovitz, RD, a nutrition expert and author who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today. “When working one-on-one with clients, I often start slow and small. Focus on challenging yourself to one new habit per week and then progress from there.”

“Being proactive about treating metabolic syndrome is truly preventative for cardiovascular disease,” Vinton added.