The Metabolic Syndrome Puts Teens at Risk

Your doctor may have told you to lose weight and watch your cholesterol. Now, your teen's doctor may be warning him or her to do the same.

The reason? "Syndrome X," or the metabolic syndrome. The metabolic syndrome is a name given to a cluster of risk factors related to the body's metabolism that can lead to health problems down the road, including an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and type 2 diabetes. The group of risk factors called the metabolic syndrome appears to be most common in people who have abdominal obesity. It is estimated that 1 in 10 of all teens ages 12 to 19 have the metabolic syndrome and that 1/3 of obese teens have metabolic syndrome.

The metabolic syndrome has been studied in adults, but doctors think that teens who have it also face a high risk for the early onset of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the metabolic syndrome exists if you have three or more of the following:

  • Abdominal obesity (waist circumference greater than 40 inches for men and greater than 35 inches for women, or greater than the 95th percentile for adolescents.)

  • High blood levels of triglycerides (150 mg/dl or greater)

  • Low blood levels of high-density lipoproteins (less than 40 mg/dl for men and less than 50 mg/dl for women or adolescents)

  • High blood pressure (130/85 or higher for adults or above the 99th percentile for adolescents)

  • Fasting blood glucose above 125 mg/dL or casual blood glucose over 199 mg/dL (an indication of insulin resistance)

These factors are all interrelated, although obesity seems to be the prominent factor: the greater the obesity, the greater the risk for developing the metabolic syndrome. Overweight children and teens are defined as being at or above the 85th percentile of body mass index (BMI), according to the Obesity Society. Obese children and teens are at or above the 95th percentile of BMI.

A person who is obese and sedentary is at higher risk for developing insulin resistance and unhealthy cholesterol levels in the blood (specifically high LDL, high total cholesterol, high triglycerides, and low HDL. Abnormal cholesterol levels are a major, lifelong risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke during adult life. Insulin resistance also may lead to type 2 diabetes.

The metabolic syndrome can be slowed if caught early. Lifestyle changes may even stop it. The most effective changes are weight reduction and increased physical activity. Just losing 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can help.

Always consult with your pediatrician before starting your child on any type of weight-loss program. Weight loss must be done in a gradual manner that balances healthy nutrition and exercise.