Metabolic Syndrome: When a “Grown-Up” Health Problem Strikes Children
Overweight kids are at risk for metabolic syndrome. This serious health threat makes future heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes more likely.
Once upon a time, health threats like heart disease were reserved for adults. High cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure were a rarity in children. But with the rise in childhood obesity, more kids are being diagnosed with “grown-up” medical problems. Changing times have brought on some alarming statistics:
- Seven in 10 obese children and teens have at least one risk factor for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or high blood sugar levels.
- Nearly four in 10 obese kids and teenagers have two or more heart disease risk factors.
If children have three or more certain risk factors, they may be diagnosed with a dangerous condition called metabolic syndrome. This is a group of health problems that raise the risk for heart disease and diabetes.
People with metabolic syndrome are two to three times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than people without the condition. And they’re five times more likely to get type 2 diabetes.
Metabolic syndrome in children
Children between the ages of 10 to 16 are considered by many experts to have metabolic syndrome if they have three or more of the following five risk factors. These factors are closely linked to being overweight or obese:
- Waist circumference. Most experts agree that a child has a risk for metabolic syndrome when his or her waist circumference is at or above the 90th percentile for the child’s age and gender. This means the child’s waist size is more than at least 90 percent of his or her peers. For children age 16 or older, a waist circumference 40 inches or more for boys and 35 inches or more for girls puts them at risk. Extra fat around the stomach is more of a risk factor for heart disease than fat anywhere else in the body.
- High triglycerides. Equal to or greater than 150 mg/dL. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood.
- Low HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein). Less than 40 mg/dL, or less than 50 mg/dL for girls age 16 and older. HDL is the “good” type of cholesterol. Too little HDL in your blood raises your chance for developing heart disease.
- High blood pressure. Equal to or greater than 130/85 mm Hg. High blood pressure raises your risk for heart disease.
- High fasting blood sugar levels. Equal to or greater than 100 mg/dL. High blood sugar is a sign of diabetes.
Children under 10 years old cannot be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. Doctors may do further tests if young children have risk factors, though.
The more of these risk factors a child has, the higher his or her chance of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes in the future.
Managing the condition
The goal of treating metabolic syndrome is to reduce a child’s risk of getting heart disease or diabetes. Metabolic syndrome is managed with lifestyle changes and sometimes medicine.
Lifestyle changes include:
- Reach and keep a healthy weight. But do not put your child on a weight loss program without your doctor’s permission. An increase in activity plus a healthy diet may be all that’s needed to meet weight goals.
- Get regular exercise. Check with your child’s doctor first to make sure physical activity is safe. Exercise may help lower blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and weight. Kids should get up to 60 minutes of activity most days of the week. Encourage active play and limit “screen” time – the amount of time your child spends watching TV, playing computer or video games, and texting friends. Cutting screen time frees up more time for active play.
- Have a nutritious diet. Fill your child’s diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products. Limit foods high in saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars, such as processed foods, sweets, and sugary beverages.
In addition to healthy habits, your child’s doctor may prescribe a medication to help lower cholesterol, blood pressure, or blood sugar levels.
Prevention is the best medicine
If your child doesn’t have metabolic syndrome, having healthy habits can help ward off the condition and other health problems. Remember, you are your child’s biggest influence. If you make healthy choices, your child is more likely to follow in your footsteps.