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The Metabolic Syndrome
You might have read about the metabolic syndrome in the newspaper or heard it talked about on the news. The syndrome is not a single problem but a group of abnormal lab tests and body measurements that help identify whether you might be at a higher risk for health problems. Originally the metabolic syndrome was known as syndrome X and has also been called insulin resistance syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome and Alzheimer's
Metabolic syndrome has been defined as a combination of the following factors: abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high blood glucose levels, and poor cholesterol scores (including high triglycerides and low levels of HDL, or good cholesterol). Studies have shown that the metabolic syndrome carries with it an increased risk of type 2 diabetes as well as cardiovascular disease, and both of those conditions have been linked to higher risk of Alzheimer's.

The American Diet Leads to Metabolic Syndrome
I've written in the past about the Metabolic Syndrome, which is a group of risk factors associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and mortality in general. Among those risk factors are waist circumference, high blood pressure, fasting glucose levels, and poor cholesterol scores. While studies have linked diet to the individual risk factors, few studies have sought to link an overall dietary pattern with Metabolic Syndrome itself.


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Coffee and Metabolic Syndrome

cup of coffee

Metabolic Syndrome is not a single condition, but rather a group of factors that, taken together, put you at higher risk for various health problems. These range from type 2 diabetes to heart disease and even Alzheimer's Disease. There are multiple definitions of the Syndrome depending on which health organization you listen to, but generally speaking the term describes those meeting three or more of the following criteria:

  • Measurement around the waist greater than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High blood sugar. This is defined as a fasting blood sugar over 110 mg/dL.
  • High triglycerides. This is another type of fat that circulates in the blood.
  • Low levels (under 40) of high-density lipoprotein (HDL Cholesterol).
  • Higher levels of visceral obesity (fat around the internal organs as opposed to just under the skin)

Remember back in Algebra class, where if A = B and B = C, then A = C? Medicine is almost never that straightforward (so to speak), but it does happen. Researchers in Japan noted that coffee has been linked in multiple studies to a reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers, so they decided to investigate whether drinking coffee could be positively related in some way to the risk factors for Metabolic Syndrome (Nutrition 2013;29(7-8):982-987).

They recruited 364 men between the ages of 36 and 61 who had undergone a CT scan recently and were not on any medications for high blood pressure, diabetes, poor cholesterol scores or heart disease. With standard tests, the researchers assessed each person's Metabolic Syndrome risk factors, then compared those results with the participant's coffee intake.

While drinking coffee did not seem to be related to blood pressure and cholesterol scores, the researchers found that coffee drinking was inversely related to the participants' hemoglobin A1C scores (a criterion for prediabetes and diabetes): those who drank at least 1 cup of coffee per day had a lower score than those who did not drink coffee at all, and the effect was greater for those drinking 4 or more cups of coffee per day. A similar effect was seen for levels of visceral fat.

What this means for you

This research alone does not necessarily prove a direct link between coffee drinking and risk factors for Metabolic Syndrome, but it IS another piece of evidence showing that drinking coffee is good for you. As I tell my patients, you need not start drinking coffee if it's not to your taste, but if you do drink it, do so knowing that regardless of whether it's decaf or regular, it's great for you.

First posted: June 26, 2013