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New research finds that the risk for several types of cancer increases as metabolic syndrome worsens. Getty Images
  • A study has found a link between worsening metabolic syndrome and cancer risk.
  • The risk for breast, endometrial, kidney, colorectal, or liver cancer was significantly higher.
  • Experts say the metabolic effects of this condition could work together to increase risk.
  • The best way to lower your risk is by reducing abdominal fat.
  • Eating a nutritious whole-food diet and exercising can help.

A study published online ahead of the April 1, 2024 print version of Cancer has found that worsening metabolic syndrome appears to increase the risk of developing cancer.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, metabolic syndrome is a clustering of symptoms that increases a person’s risk for coronary heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

It may be recognized by the presence of three or more of the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • High blood triglycerides
  • Low HDL (often referred to as “good” cholesterol)

Breast, endometrial, kidney, colorectal, and liver cancers were especially associated with this metabolic condition.

Per the study authors, management of metabolic syndrome could be an effective way to modulate cancer risk.

To examine how metabolic syndrome affects cancer risk, the researchers studied 44,115 Chinese adults with an average age of 49 years.

Researchers calculated metabolic syndrome scores for participants based on the presence of each of the five metabolic syndrome symptoms, with a score of 0 being the lowest and a score of 5 being the highest.

The study participants were then placed into one of four different metabolic syndrome trajectories based on trends observed in their metabolic syndrome scores between 2006 and 2010. These trajectories were:

  • low-stable (10.56% of participants)
  • moderate-low (40.84% of participants)
  • moderate-high (41.46% of participants)
  • elevated-increasing (7.14% of participants)

While the first three groups maintained steady metabolic syndrome scores over time, the elevated-increasing group started out with elevated scores that rose over the course of the study period.

The four groups were then followed between 2010 and 2021.

During this time frame, 2,271 people were diagnosed with cancer.

When the team compared the elevated-increasing group with the low-stable group, they found that the risk of developing any type of cancer was 1.3 times greater.

However, the risks for developing certain types of cancers were also notably higher:

  • breast cancer risk was 2.1 times higher
  • endometrial cancer risk was 3.3 times higher
  • kidney cancer risk was 4.5 times higher
  • colorectal cancer risk was 2.5 times higher
  • liver cancer risk was 1.6 times higher

Additionally, individuals with the elevated-increasing pattern had a greater increase in risk for all cancer types than the other groups combined.

The researchers further found that the elevated-increasing pattern and concurrent chronic inflammation was associated with a greater risk for breast, endometrial, colorectal, and liver cancer. Kidney cancer, however, was mainly seen in those in the elevated-increasing group who did not have without chronic inflammation.

Dr. Michael Sturek, a member of the American Physiological Society, said the authors were correct in stating that metabolic syndrome is a constellation of factors, including obesity, high blood cholesterol and triglycerides, high blood pressure, mild increases in blood sugar, and chronic inflammation.

“These factors are interconnected and act synergistically to promote the adverse growth of tumors,” he explained.

Sturek, who was not involved in the study, went on to note that this has previously been shown in other studies as well.

However, the authors of this study have made the point that the rate of increase in severity of metabolic syndrome was a major reason that cancer risk was greater.

“The findings are solid,” he added, “but the molecular pathways causing the increase in cancer cannot be known from this study.”

Dr. Jared Braunstein, a board certified internist with Medical Offices of Manhattan and contributor to LabFinder who was not involved in the study, speculated, however, that leptin could play a role.

“Patients with metabolic syndrome tend to be obese and make high amounts of leptin which has been associated with prostate, colon, breast and endometrial cancers,” he said.

Braunstein advises that reducing obesity — especially abdominal obesity — is an important part of dealing with metabolic syndrome.

Visceral fat, the fat associated with abdominal obesity, is biologically active, secreting certain hormones and chemicals that can contribute to the development of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

This fat tends to accumulate deep in the abdomen surrounding the internal organs, including the stomach, liver, and intestines. It is different from the subcutaneous fat that lies just under the skin.

“Probably the most proactive plan is to adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes proper nutrition and exercise, which can prevent MetS [metabolic syndrome] and inflammation,” added Sturek.

While there is no specific diet that is recommended for the treatment of metabolic syndrome, it is usually advised that people eat nutritious whole foods and avoid processed foods high in sugar and saturated fat.

Three anti-inflammatory diets that fit the bill include the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the whole-food, plant-based diet.

As far as exercise, Sturek pointed to a September 2022 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in which it was found that taking 10,000 steps per day was associated with a lower risk of cancer.

He acknowledged, however, that compliance with a diet and exercise regimen is often difficult for people. “[I]t remains to be seen whether new weight control and diabetes drugs, like semaglutide (Ozempic) or tirzepatide (Mounjaro), will be effective treatments, also.”

A new study has found a link between worsening metabolic syndrome and increasing risk of developing cancer.

Greater risk was especially seen with breast, endometrial, kidney, colorectal, and liver cancers.

It can’t be determined from the study exactly what the mechanism is that is responsible for the increase in risk.

However, there could be some sort of interplay between the metabolic effects associated with this condition.

Working to reduce abdominal obesity through a healthy diet and exercise is the best way to reverse metabolic syndrome and reduce your cancer risk.