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Metabolic Syndrome Placing Teens at Risk for Heart Disease

separator Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms that, taken together, create a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Metabolic syndrome has been recognized fairly recently as an actual condition. The definitions of the syndrome have evolved slightly over the past few years. The latest definition, from the International Obesity Task Force, states that to be classified as having metabolic syndrome, you have what’s called “central obesity,” or fat in the belly area, plus two of the following four risk factors:

  • High blood pressure
  • Higher blood sugar count than is normal (although not necessarily at the level of diabetes)
  • High triglycerides (blood fat, such as cholesterol)
  • Lower levels of HDL, or good cholesterol.

If you have all the symptoms of metabolic syndrome, you are six times more likely to develop heart disease than someone who has none of the risk factors.

Unfortunately, more than 20 percent of U.S. adults have metabolic syndrome. Perhaps even more disturbing is that nearly 1 million American teenagers have it as well.

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine discovered that certain risk factors were more prevalent in certain racial groups. For example:

  • Caucasian adolescents had the highest rate of elevated blood fats
  • Mexican-American adolescents had the highest rate of abdominal obesity
  • African-American adolescents had the highest rate of high blood pressure

Why do teens have metabolic syndrome?
Metabolic syndrome has three primary causes:

  • Overweight and obesity
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Genetic predisposition

The causes are the same whether you’re an adult or a teenager. But the big increase in teens with the syndrome indicates that today’s children are living more sedentary lives, watching too much television and spending too much time at the computer. And they’re eating too much of the wrong kinds of foods.

It’s troubling enough to develop heart disease when you’re an older adult. But when you’re already at risk as a child, if you don’t make big lifestyle changes quickly, you’re likely to have serious health problems much earlier in life. For example, it might be more likely to have a heart attack in your 20s or 30s. Or a disabling stroke before you even have a chance to become a parent.

What can be done about metabolic syndrome in teens?
Some teens may be motivated enough to take action on their own to reduce their metabolic syndrome risk factors. But in most cases, parents play a more important role in setting a healthy example for their at-risk teens. What kinds of changes will families need to make?

►        Make major changes in the types and amounts of food your family eats.

This means not only eating the right portion sizes, but replacing unhealthy foods with healthier choices. For example, instead of fried chips, select baked chips. Instead of corn flakes and other cereals that have low fiber, choose higher fiber cereals like Raisin Bran. Instead of white potatoes, eat sweet potatoes. Choose brown rice over white rice. Instead of white bread, choose whole grain bread. Instead of apple juice, eat the real thing—an apple.

Read the labels on food packaging so that you choose higher-fiber, lower-sugar foods. The labeling will also tell you how much of the food equals one portion. It’s hard to get used to eating smaller portions at first, but if you make it a total family effort, you’re more likely to succeed.

If you need help sorting out all the facts about healthy food quantities and types, talk with your doctor or with a nutritionist.

►        Choose an active lifestyle.

Families who start off early placing an importance on regular exercise are more likely to have children who stay active as they enter their teen years. If your children are young, now is a good time to start them on good habits. If your challenge is getting a non-exercising teen into a different mindset, that’s more difficult. But it can be done. Make it fun. See whether they’d like to join you in workouts. If it’s possible financially, tell them they have to sign up for some kind of exercise class or sport. Let them help choose what it is they’ll take. And let them know you’re doing this for their health.

The American Academy of Family Physicians, “Metabolic Syndrome: What Is It and What Can I Do About It?”; Archives of Internal Medicine, August 2003; International Obesity Task Force.
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