You might be surprised to learn that these are problems kids can have. After all,
high blood pressure and high cholesterol are usually things older people grumble about.
Not so anymore. Thanks to the rising obesity epidemic in young people, kids and
teens are getting these conditions — and they're getting them earlier
than ever before. Some estimates say that nearly 1 in 10 teens — and over a
third of obese teens — have metabolic syndrome. And a study of 375 second- and
third-graders found that 5% had metabolic syndrome and 45% had one or two risk factors
This is something parents should know about, especially because they can take steps
to lessen their kids' chances of developing metabolic syndrome or the risk factors
that lead to it.
What Causes Metabolic Syndrome?
Metabolic syndrome (also called dysmetabolic syndrome or syndrome X) is brought
on by the same problems that cause heart disease and type 2 diabetes. So, having a
diet that's high in calories and low in nutrients and consuming lots of fast food
and sweetened beverages can put kids at risk.
Sitting in front of a screen and not getting enough (or any) exercise also can
increase a child's chance of developing factors like obesity,
low HDL ("good") cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar that define
Risk appears to be highest around puberty. That may be because body fat, blood
pressure, and lipids are all affected by the hormones that bring about the many changes
Kids who have a family history of heart disease or diabetes are at greater risk
for metabolic syndrome. But, as with many things in life, the lifestyle habits a child
adopts can push things in one direction or another. So kids who are active, fit, and
eat a lot of fruits and vegetables may drastically decrease their chances of developing
metabolic syndrome — even if a close relative already has it.
What Problems Can Happen?
Metabolic syndrome itself often has no noticeable symptoms early on. But when its
risk factors are left to snowball for too long, major changes may start to develop
in the body. These include:
Arteriosclerosis. This happens when cholesterol hardens and begins
to build up in the walls of arteries, causing blockages that can lead to high blood
pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
Poor kidney function. The kidneys
become less able to filter toxins out of the blood, which can also increase the risk
of high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke.
resistance. This is when the body's cells don't respond to insulin (the
hormone that helps to regulate sugar in the blood) normally, and that can lead to
high blood sugar levels and diabetes.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome. Thought to be related to insulin
resistance, this disorder involves the release of extra male hormones by the ovaries,
which can lead to abnormal menstrual bleeding, excessive hair growth, acne, and fertility
problems. It is also associated with an increased risk for obesity, hypertension,
and — in the long-term — diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
nigricans. A skin disorder that causes thick, dark,
velvet-like patches of skin around the neck, armpits, groin, between the fingers and
toes, or on the elbows and knees.
How Is Metabolic Syndrome Diagnosed?
For a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, a child must have at least three of the
four risk factors. The most common risk factors in teens are hypertension and abnormal
cholesterol. Even when just one risk factor is present, a doctor will likely check
for the others. This is especially true if a child is overweight, has a family member
with type 2 diabetes, or has acanthosis nigricans.
These exams and tests can help doctors make a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome:
Body mass index (BMI)and waist measurement. By calculating someone's BMI and checking
for extra weight around the middle, doctors can judge if these problems are likely
to have a negative effect on health. A waist measurement at or above the 90th percentile
for a child's age and sex would be considered a risk factor.
Blood pressure. Blood pressure is the force the blood exerts
against the blood vessel walls as the heart pumps. When this force is at or above
the 90th percentile for a child's age and sex, it is considered a risk factor.
Blood tests, including:
profile. This test measures the levels of fats in the blood. Having low levels
of good cholesterol (HDL) and high levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) or triglycerides
would be considered a risk factor.
The fasting blood glucose test measures the amount of glucose in the blood after an
8-hour fast. After several hours without eating, a healthy person's blood glucose
level should not be higher than a certain level. A glucose level higher than this
could be a risk factor.
Insulin. A blood
insulin test may also be performed in some cases as part of a check for insulin resistance.
As kids' bodies change and grow, the cutoff numbers for many of these tests change
too. To standardize some of this information, doctors use special charts to plot where
kids' numbers fall according to their age, sex, weight, and height. This also helps
them follow a child's progression over time.
Treating Risk Factors
If your child is diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, it does not necessarily mean
that he or she will develop heart disease or diabetes. But the risk is increased —
especially if the risk factors involved aren't improved or eliminated.
For some kids, a lifestyle change may be enough to reduce the risk for serious
disease. A doctor may recommend:
Dropping excess pounds. If your child is overweight, even a moderate
amount of weight loss can bring big improvements in blood pressure, blood lipid levels,
and the body's ability to use insulin.
Getting moreexercise. By taking just one of
those hours spent in front of a screen each day and spending it on something that
gets the blood flowing, kids can greatly improve their blood pressure, cholesterol,
and sensitivity to the effects of insulin.
Eating mindfully. A child who learns to see food as fuel and
not emotional compensation can start to make better choices at mealtime — for
example, selecting complex carbs instead of simple carbs (whole-grain instead of white
bread, brown rice instead of white); getting more fiber
with beans, fruits, and vegetables; choosing "healthy" fats like olive oil and nuts;
and avoiding too many empty calories from soda and sweets.
Fibersupplements. If your child might not be
getting enough fiber through food, a fiber supplement may provide an added boost to
help improve the levels of cholesterol in the blood.
Notsmoking. No surprise here — it's just
about the worst thing people can do to their heart and lungs. Either alone or in combination
with metabolic syndrome risk factors, smoking greatly increases the risk for heart
When lifestyle changes aren't enough, a child take prescription medicines to treat
individual risk factors. So, kids with high blood pressure might be put on antihypertension
drugs. Others with high LDL cholesterol might be prescribed statins or other lipid-lowering
drugs. Children with high blood sugar, who are on the brink of developing diabetes,
may get medicine to decrease insulin resistance.
While bariatric surgery
for weight loss is not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
in kids, some teens who are very obese or those who are obese and have developed heart
disease or diabetes may be candidates for the procedure.
Kids and teens have the power to positively influence many health outcomes. Eating
right and staying active are two ways they can help ensure a healthier tomorrow.
Of course, it's easier for kids to make better choices if they see their parents
doing the same. So make a plan to help your entire family choose a new, healthier
direction. It's never too late to start on the right path.