Most women know that lack of exercise and unhealthy diets lead to heart disease, diabetes and strokes. But as women make the transition from regular cycles to menopause and after, it becomes more difficult to maintain a healthy weight because of hormonal changes, stress, aging, and less muscle mass. These changes then increase the risk for metabolic syndrome, or the conditions that lead to the greater likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, and stress.
Metabolic Risk Factors
There are typically five conditions that lead to metabolic syndrome. You can have any one of these risk factors by itself, but they tend to occur together. You must have at least three metabolic risk factors to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome.
- A large waistline. Excess fat in the stomach area is a greater risk factor for heart disease than excess fat in other parts of the body, such as on the hips.
- A high triglyceride level. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood.
- A low HDL cholesterol level.
- High blood pressure. Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage your heart and lead to plaque buildup.
- High fasting blood sugar. High blood sugar may be an early sign of diabetes.
Your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke increases with the number of metabolic risk factors you have. The risk of having metabolic syndrome is closely linked to overweight and obesity and a lack of physical activity.
Metabolic Syndrome, Menopause, and Other Factors
Relevant to women in midlife, researchers have already discovered that women going through menopause typically gain weight and are at a higher risk of metabolic syndrome. But what has not been as well understood is how much social and economic conditions influence that risk. A new study published in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society, shows that less education and low income put women at much greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
Researchers in Korea analyzed four years of data from the Korean Genetic Epidemiologic Survey and discovered that overweight, obese, sedentary, undereducated, and disadvantaged women going through menopause significantly increased their risk of metabolic syndrome.
As opposed to women with normal weight, overweight women in the study had more than four times the risk and obese women had an astonishing twelve times risk of metabolic syndrome. And women in the study who had less than ten years of education, the risk of metabolic syndrome was 1.4 times greater than for more educated women. Among the women who experienced menopause during the study, those who only had a high-school education had 1.7 times the risk of better educated women. In addition, disadvantaged women who went through menopause during the study had 2.5 times the risk and middle-income women have double the risk of their wealthier counterparts.
Furthermore, women who had smoked at any time in their life were 60% more likely than those who hadn’t to develop metabolic syndrome. Women who were sedentary had a 55% higher risk than those who exercised regularly.
While going through menopause by itself does not necessarily increase a women’s risk of metabolic syndrome, going through menopause when overweight, being less educated and having a low income does appear to increase the risk.
Metabolic syndrome is becoming more common due to a rise in obesity rates among adults. In the future, metabolic syndrome may overtake smoking as the leading risk factor for heart disease.
So what helps? It is possible to prevent or delay metabolic syndrome, mainly with lifestyle changes. A healthy lifestyle is a lifelong commitment. Develop good exercise habits. And remember, it’s never too late to start. Moving your body and choosing the right number of calories and good nutrition only becomes more important as you get older. Learn about your risk factors and see your health care provider regularly as you go through menopause.
Sue Kim, Yunhee Ko, Gihong Yi. Role of social determinants and lifestyle on womenʼs metabolic risk during the perimenopausal transition. Menopause, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1097/GME.0000000000000544