Aging and Metabolic Syndrome: Why You May Already Have It

By Dr. Kevin J. McLaughlin

Have you ever wondered why so many older men and women have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, probably among other health issues? And why are these individuals on so many different medications to control these conditions?

The answer most doctors will tell you is that these conditions, if left untreated, greatly increase the chances of developing some form of cardiovascular disease, which adversely affect both the heart and brain. The next question I have for you is: what do these older adults have in common? Most of them are overweight, obese, and have waist circumferences that exceed 36 inches.

As I am sure most of you know, being overweight or obese carries with it certain risk factors for disease, including high blood pressure, high blood fats, high blood sugar, diabetes, heart attack, and stroke. Why? Because all of these medical conditions are also connected to the same physiological condition: metabolic syndrome, which has become one of the largest disease epidemics in North America today. Metabolic syndrome is more common among older adults—less than 10% of individuals in their 20s are affected, versus 40% of people in their 60s.

Women who are overweight or obese are much more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, including the associated risk for heart attack, stroke, or diabetes. However, the number on the scale or your body mass index (BMI) is not really the most accurate in determining your individual risk for developing metabolic syndrome. Your waist size is actually better able to predict your risk of getting metabolic syndrome.

The dysfunctional physiology that causes this syndrome is insulin resistance. Metabolic syndrome can develop after a prolonged state of insulin resistance and consists of the following: abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high levels of inflammation, family history of insulin resistance, and poor lifestyle habits. In other words, if you have at least three of these metabolic-related conditions at the same time, you have metabolic syndrome.

Insulin resistance is caused when the amount of insulin secreted after a meal can no longer regulate your blood sugar. When this happens, your body will try to compensate by secreting more insulin to control your blood sugar. Although this does work, it causes a lot of serious metabolic harm, including higher blood pressure, blood fats, inflammation, blood clotting, and fat storage in your body. When this situation is left unaddressed, your arteries will eventually become damaged, leading to stiffness, calcium deposition, and plaque formation.

If you have metabolic syndrome, your blood sugar may increase gradually, but will still stay within normal limits. If your blood sugar continues to rise above the acceptable threshold level, you will develop type 2 diabetes. This is why metabolic syndrome has also been called pre-diabetes.