It’s important to take care of your heart, from your diet to physical activity, and that’s especially the case if you have conditions that directly affect your ticker.

There’s a new study published by the European Society of Cardiology that shows a combination of four common unhealthy traits may cause an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including events like heart attacks and stroke. Here’s what the study found and what you can do to help improve your heart health if you have these conditions.

What the Study Found

Presented at ESC Congress 2023 on August 25 and funded by the Regional Board for the County of Västmanland and Centre for Clinical Research, the study followed 34,269 adults in their 40s and 50s who were screened for their cardiovascular health in the 1990s in Sweden. There, 15% of the group (5,084 individuals) were classified to have metabolic syndrome because they had three or more of the following common traits:

  1. “Waist circumference of 102 centimeters or above for men and 88 centimeters or above for women.” This equates to about 40.1 inches and 34.6 inches, respectively.
  2. High cholesterol levels measured at 6.1 mmol/l or above, which is roughly 236 mg/dL.
  3. High blood pressure, specifically “130 mmHg or higher systolic blood pressure and/or 85 mm Hg or higher diastolic blood pressure.”
  4. High blood sugar levels with “fasting plasma glucose 5.6 mmol/l or higher,” equating to about 101 mg/dL.

Both those with metabolic syndrome and a control group of 10,168 people without metabolic syndrome were identified, and 47% of total participants were women. In an average follow-up of 27 years, non-fatal cardiovascular events—including heart attack and stroke—occurred in 32% of the participants with metabolic syndrome compared to 22% in the control group. This showcases a greater heart attack and stroke risk for those with metabolic syndrome in this study.

Plus, for those that experienced a heart attack or stroke in this study, the median time for the first non-fatal event was 16.8 years after the initial screening for those with metabolic syndrome, compared to 19.1 years for the control group. This 2.3-year difference means that the metabolic syndrome group was prone to have a heart attack or stroke earlier in life than the control group.

“As metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors, the level of each individual component does not have to be severely raised,” study author Dr. Lena Lönnberg said in the release. “In fact, most people live with slightly raised levels for many years before having symptoms that lead them to seek health care.”

The combination of these conditions is what causes the increased risk, but Lönnberg notes the importance of keeping blood pressure in check.

“Blood pressure was the riskiest component, particularly for women in their 40s, highlighting the value of keeping it under control,” she emphasized. One thing that can help lower high blood pressure levels is by following a healthy eating pattern that targets metabolic syndrome. The DASH diet—Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension—is a great place to start, as it meets our guidelines for healthy blood pressure and heart-healthy nutrition parameters. Check out this 30-day DASH diet dinner plan to help you get started.

The Bottom Line

While this study showed that metabolic syndrome increases risk for heart attacks and stroke, there are healthy lifestyle choices you can make to reduce this risk.

“The results underline the importance of early detection of risk factors through health screening programmes so that preventive actions can be taken to prevent heart attack, stroke and premature death,” Lönnberg said. “As a general rule of thumb, even if you feel well, check your blood pressure every year, avoid smoking, keep an eye on your waist circumference and last, but definitely not least, be physically active every day.”

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