Risk of Metabolic Syndrome Increases During Menopausal Transition

Patient Expert

As you go through menopause, there are many things to worry about. However, you may be ignoring one big thing that could really threaten your health -metabolic syndrome.

This syndrome is actually a group of risk factors that can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. "Metabolic" is a term that describes the biochemical processes that are involved in how the body functions normally. There are primary five metabolic risk factors:

  • A large waistline that stores excessive fat.
  • A diagnosis of high triglyceride levels.
  • A diagnosis of low HDL (good) cholesterol. Low HDL cholesterol levels increase the risk for heart disease.
  • A diagnosis of high blood pressure. High blood pressure levels over time can damage the heart and allow a build-up of plaque.
  • A diagnosis of high fasting blood sugar. Mildly high blood sugar can be an indication of diabetes.

You need to have at least three of the above traits to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. Additionally, a lack of physical activity, genetics (ethnicity and family history), and growing older are other factors that may help trigger this condition. In fact, metabolic syndrome occurs in about 45 percent of people who are between the ages of 60-69. Researchers also have found that the risk of this condition increases among women around the time they go through perimenopause, possibly due to a woman's increasing levels of testosterone during this transition.

So besides heart disease and diabetes, there are other reasons to get a handle on risk factors related to metabolic syndrome. A new study out of the United Kingdom suggests that this condition may be a risk factor for breast cancer in postmenopausal women.   This study involved 3,327 women who did not have diabetes.   Of those, 497 had been diagnosed with breast cancer about eight years after the study began. The researchers collected fasting insulin and glucose levels for all participants.

The researchers' analysis found that overweight women who were metabolically healthy (as defined by normal insulin sensitivity) were not at an elevated risk of breast cancer when compared with women who had a normal weight who also were metabolically healthy. However, women who were overweight and insulin-resistant had an 84-percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who were overweight but not insulin resistant.   Furthermore, when the researchers analyzed data using fasting insulin levels, they found that breast cancer risk more than doubled among women who were both overweight and who had high fasting insulin levels. Additionally, women who were at a normal weight and had high fasting insulin levels were found to have a two times higher risk of breast cancer than participants who were normal weight and had normal fasting insulin levels.

The researchers believe that these findings suggest that metabolic health based on insulin levels may actually be more relevant in determining the risk of breast cancer than being overweight. "These results suggest that metabolic health evaluated by, for example, insulin resistance, might be a better predictor of breast cancer risk than being overweight or obese," said study lead author Dr. Marc J. Gunter, an associate of cancer epidemiology and prevention   in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Imperial College London's School of Public Health. "However, given that being overweight or obese significantly increases an individual's risk of being metabolically unhealthy, it remains important that we all keep a healthy weight throughout life."

So is it possible to delay or prevent metabolic syndrome? It turns out that the following lifestyle choices can play a factor:

  • Diet - A heart healthy diet can help you avoid metabolic syndrome. This type of diet includes a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products and protein such as lean meats, poultry without skin, seafood, nuts, processed soy products, seeds, beans and peas. In addition, you should avoid consuming sodium, added sugars, solid fats, and refined grains.
  • Physical activity - Regular exercise will help you maintain a healthy weight. Be sure to talk to your doctor prior to starting a new exercise program to make sure it's safe for you.
  • Have regular appointments with your doctor so you can track cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

American Association for Cancer Research. (2015). Poor metabolic health increases risk for postmenopausal breast cancer irrespective of BMI.

Gunter, M. J., et al. (2015). Breast cancer risk in metabolically healthy but overweight postmenopausal women. Cancer Research.

Healthywomen.org. (2010). Metabolic syndrome.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2011). What is metabolic syndrome?