Stiff Arteries May Cause Metabolic Syndrome

Stiff arteries may cause, rather than be a consequence of, metabolic syndrome, results of a longitudinal birth cohort study show.

New research published in the American Journal of Physiology found that arterial stiffness occurred before the presence of metabolic syndrome. A progressive rise in stiffness was associated with a cumulative increase in risk for the condition among the 3862 people studied over a 7-year period starting in late adolescence. 

Results revealed a notable sex difference: Arterial stiffness increased the risk for metabolic syndrome by 9% for males but only by 1% for females. Males were also five times more likely than females to have metabolic syndrome.

“It seems metabolic syndrome has a new risk factor we haven’t thought about,” said author Andrew O. Agbaje, MD, clinical epidemiologist and researcher, University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio.

Arterial stiffness previously was associated with metabolic syndrome in numerous studies. But the new work is the first to find evidence for causality, Agbaje told Medscape Medical News.

Dr Andrew O. Agbaje

“Interventions have focused on addressing the components of metabolic syndrome like obesity, dyslipidemia, hyperglycemia, and hypertension,” Agbaje said. “But arterial stiffness may independently cause metabolic syndrome in 1 out of 10 male teens. I encourage clinicians to think about its role in preventing and managing metabolic syndrome, not just as a consequence but as a cause.”

The results have important implications for physicians, according to Sissi Cossio, MD, pediatric endocrinologist, Pediatrix Medical Group, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“The fact that arterial stiffness progression preceded metabolic syndrome is important because it could be used as an earlier detection marker of disease,” Cossio said.

Dr Sissi Cossio

To conduct the study, Agbaje and his research team used data collected by the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children at the University of Bristol in England. Arterial stiffness was measured using carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity, the speed of blood flow from the upper to the lower aorta. They assessed for metabolic syndrome by the presence of three or more risk factors, including high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and high trunk fat mass.

Participants were studied starting in gestation in the early 1990s, and were measured for arterial stiffness and metabolic syndrome starting at age 17 through age 24.

The overall risk for metabolic syndrome doubled within the 7-year study period of follow-up between 2009 and 2017, indicating that early intervention during adolescence is essential. 

Agbaje recommended that physicians start treating arterial stiffness and other markers of metabolic syndrome as early as possible, noting that, “potentially irreversible cardiovascular health damage might occur after age 17.” 

Arterial stiffness can be negated through physical activity and dietary changes that lower inflammation. Physicians should refer at-risk teens to a preventative clinic where they can be monitored and receive repeated measurements of arterial stiffness, lipid levels, blood pressure, glucose levels, and obesity every 3 months, Agbaje said.

“The health progress made after a year would be an indicator for physicians whether a more aggressive therapeutic approach is needed since it takes about seven years for the risk of metabolic syndrome attributed to arterial stiffness to worsen remarkably in the young population,” he said.

Agbaje pointed to a few potential pathways through which arterial stiffness might create a disease cascade. Stiffer arteries disrupt blood flow to the liver and pancreas, which could adversely affect their functioning, he said. Damage to these organs may increase insulin and LDL cholesterol blood levels, increasing the risk for metabolic syndrome.

Arterial stiffness also can lead to higher blood pressure and insulin resistance, potentially inducing musculogenesis and vasculogenesis. The resulting excessive muscle mass may also increase the risk for the condition, he said.

Cossio acknowledged that treatments for metabolic syndrome become less effective with age, but emphasized that reversal is possible in adults with lifestyle changes and medications.

“Early detection will give patients the best chance at reversing the disease, and [primary care physicians] are a key factor in this process,” she said.

Cossio said that at-risk teens should receive treatment in a weight loss or endocrinology clinic. Treatment may include behavioral, surgical, and pharmacotherapeutic interventions.

“Teens with signs of insulin resistance and impaired fasting glucose, acanthosis, or prediabetes, should start metformin as the first line of therapy,” Cossio said. 

For weight management, she recommends antiobesity medications such as liraglutide, semaglutide, and the combination of phentermine/topiramate in children aged 12 years or older. In teenagers 16 years or older, phentermine alone is another option.

The research group that conducted the study reports received funding from the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation, the North Savo Regional and Central Finnish Cultural Foundation, the Aarne Koskelo Foundation, the Foundation for Pediatric Research, and the Finnish Foundation for Cardiovascular Research, among others. The author declares no conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Brittany Vargas is a health journalist living in California.

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