CHICAGO (AP) _ At least 47 million American adults _ or more than one in five _ have metabolic syndrome, a disorder that often includes a beer belly, high blood pressure, poor cholesterol readings and high blood sugar, according to a disturbing new study.
Metabolic syndrome has been recognized since at least the 1920s, though it has been called different things over the years. It is not a single disease but a cluster of health problems, and despite its name, does not necessarily mean a person's metabolism is defective.
Though experts say the syndrome may be caused by a combination of genes and lifestyle factors, lifestyle _ including overeating and a lack of exercise _ are probably the most important factors, said Dr. Earl Ford of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who led the study.
Experts suspected the syndrome was common but were uncertain about its prevalence. This study puts a number on the scope of the problem.
``When you consider that 50 to 60 million Americans have hypertension, about 60 percent of adults qualify as overweight or obese, and there are 16 million Americans with diabetes, I knew the number would be fairly large,'' Ford said.
Metabolic syndrome greatly increases the risk of diabetes, heart attacks and stroke.
The findings were published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.
The disorder often features a disproportionate amount of abdominal fat _ the so-called beer belly _ as well as elevated blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides and low levels of HDL, the good kind of cholesterol.
The CDC reached its estimate by using the first-ever specific definition of the syndrome developed by the National Institutes of Health.
The definition could help doctors identify and treat patients by giving them blood pressure or cholesterol drugs or getting them to lose weight, eat better and get more exercise.
According to the NIH definition, metabolic disorder is present if a patient has any three or more symptoms: a waist measuring at least 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women; levels of triglycerides _ fats that circulate in the blood _ of at least 150 milligrams per deciliter; HDL levels of less than 40 mgs in men and less than 50 mgs in women; blood pressure of at least 135/80; and blood sugar of at least 110 mgs.
The CDC team used the definition to analyze data from a nationally representative sample of 8,814 men and women who participated in a 1988-94 health survey.
While about 22 percent of U.S. adults were calculated to have the syndrome, rates range from 6.7 percent among those in their 20s to 43.5 percent in adults in their 60s. The rates among men and women were 24 percent and 23.4 percent, respectively.
Dr. Margo Denke, a professor of medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said the report may prompt doctors to more aggressively investigate what would previously have been dismissed as isolated symptoms. The numbers suggest ``you're not going to have to look that hard to find patients'' who have the multiple symptoms, she said.
``This is one syndrome that is exquisitely lifestyle-sensitive _ it's an area where we can get people to pay attention and if they do pay attention, there's big rewards,'' she said.