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8 Things You Need to Know About the New “Silent Killer”

Metabolic syndrome affects 1 in 3 adults, it's on the rise, and it leads to potentially fatal conditions—but it's also preventable and reversible with the right lifestyle choices. Here's what experts say you need to know about metabolic syndrome.

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Metabolic syndrome is a deadly potpourri

If this is a new one to you, metabolic syndrome is generally recognized as having at least three of the following five risk factors, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH): a large waist line, high levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood), low levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind), high blood pressure, and high fasting blood sugar. The reason for clumping these related problems together is that while each raise your risk of heart disease and diabetes, combined they’re far deadlier. “Each one of those factors in its own right has an adverse effect on your vascular system,” says Mott Blair, MD, a family physician in Wallace, N.C. and member of the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Having them in conjunction really raises your risk, and you need to pay attention to that.” Watch out for these symptoms of metabolic syndrome.

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It’s on the rise

The prevalence of metabolic syndrome has increased so much, Florida Atlantic University researchers warn it’s the new “silent killer,” comparable to hypertension in the 1970s. One in three adults—and approximately 40 percent of adults 40 and older—are affected by metabolic syndrome, the researchers report. “Am I personally seeing more cases of metabolic syndrome in my practice today than I was 10 or 15 years ago?” asks Dr. Blair. “Yes, absolutely.”

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It’s primarily tied to weight gain

Why is metabolic syndrome so prevalent? “The underlying issue is that obesity is on the rise,” says Caroline Apovian, MD, director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Boston Medical Center and Chair of the 2015 Obesity Treatment Guidelines for the Endocrine Society. “Poor diet and lack of exercise in the U.S. are causing big problems. We’re seeing more and more people who are obese develop type 2 diabetes and heart disease much earlier than we used to.” This popular sugar substitute can help prevent metabolic syndrome.

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It’s reversible

There may not be a medication tailored specifically for metabolic syndrome, but there is plenty you can do to halt and even reverse the condition. If you’re diagnosed, the first step is adopting a healthier lifestyle. “I set goals to help my patients increase physical activity and make better eating choices,” says Dr. Blair. For physical activity, aim for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five times a week—after checking with your physician first, warns Dr. Blair. For healthy eating, limit sugar and refined carbohydrates like bread, pasta, and rice, and eat more fresh, canned, and frozen produce. “There are lots of changes people can make that have a profound impact on their health and longevity, and they’re not that hard to do.”

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It’s motivating

Learning that you have metabolic syndrome can be excellent motivation for adopting that healthier lifestyle, says Dr. Blair. Patients typically want to prevent more serious problems from developing, he says. “It’s about being empowered to help improve your own health. Recognizing all these risk factors together may motivate you to set some long-term goals to control all these issues and be healthier, feel better, and live longer, too.”

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It’s preventable

More good news: Most people have the power to avoid metabolic syndrome altogether by preventing their weight from creeping upward in the first place. “I usually talk to my patients about four lifestyle pillars,” says Dr. Apovian. In addition to eating a healthy diet and 30 minutes of daily exercise (two of which should include strength training), she adds sleeping for eight hours each night and taking measures to reduce stress, like practicing yoga or mindfulness meditation.

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Oh, and never, ever do this

Guess which habit is like pouring kerosene over the simmering flame of metabolic syndrome? Yep, smoking. “The one thing you absolutely do not want to do, particularly if you have the factors associated with metabolic syndrome, is smoke; it really increases your risk for long-term problems,” says Dr. Blair. “It breaks my heart to go down the street and see somebody smoking, particularly a young person, because as a physician I look at that person and think, ‘Gosh if you could just see what your future holds by doing that.’ It really is an awful thing.” Need help quitting? Try these 42 fast, easy tips to lose weight.