Syndrome X: Diseases of the lifestyle of modern man

Written by jillian o'keeffe Google
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A comfortable life may be the cause of premature death

Syndrome X: Diseases of the lifestyle of modern man
Being obese can reduce lifespan (George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

"Caught early enough, you can recover completely"

— Dr Sean Carroll, Leeds University

Syndrome X is a medical term for a collection of issues with the body which can put people at greater risk of premature death. The list of problems is also called metabolic syndrome, or insulin resistance syndrome. Specific issues include high blood pressure, an inability of the body to control blood sugar properly, and being obese. The creature comforts of western civilisation, and the easy availability of calorie-dense food, produce a modern population with a high rate of Syndrome X.

Heart and circulation issues

Syndrome X: Diseases of the lifestyle of modern man
Fast food and sitting down all day all help to promote the development of Syndrome X (Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images)

The body uses the blood system to move nutrients around the body, and when a diet contains too much fats and sugars for good health, this system begins to break down. Too much rich food and little or no exercise means that the arteries begin to clog up with triglycerides and low-density lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol) from the food that has not been burnt off in exercise.

Issues with metabolising food safely arise due to the modern sedentary lifestyle and easy availability of energy-rich foods without many nutrients. Problems with the circulatory system, which form part of the diagnostic criteria for Syndrome X include high blood pressure, low levels of 'good' cholesterol, high levels of bad triglycerides and a high level of bad cholesterol. All of these issues are strongly related to bad food choices, overeating and not doing any exercise. Obesity, especially when fat is concentrated around the waist, is a visual clue that a person may have Syndrome X. According to G.P. Dr Mark Porter, "You are at risk if your waist is over 40 inches if you are a man, 34 inches for women - thresholds that drop to 35 and 31 inches respectively in Asians who are already at higher risk of conditions like diabetes."

Insulin resistance

Syndrome X: Diseases of the lifestyle of modern man
Sugary snacks can trip out the insulin control system of the body (Elizabeth Hachem/Lifesize/Getty Images)

A healthy body can absorb energy from food and turn it into glucose (sugar) to move it around the body, through the bloodstream. If constantly assaulted by sugar and starch, the system breaks down, and a condition called pre-diabetes develops.

Controlling the movement of glucose is a molecule called insulin, which helps to keep blood sugar levels at a safe concentration. Problems arise, though, when the body is fed sugary, high carbohydrate foods regularly, because the insulin becomes incapable of controlling the glucose levels properly. "Syndrome X is a pre-diabetic state in which the body stops using sugar properly," says Dr Ann Allen, of the Glycaemic Research Institute in the U.S. Doctors can pick up signs of the presence of pre-diabetes by testing the levels of sugar in the blood after a period of fasting, which can be a warning sign, along with cardiovascular factors like high blood pressure, of the presence of Syndrome X. This situation is more likely to occur in modern times than before, as cheap sugars and carbohydrates like biscuits, breads and desserts are much more available than they would have been fifty years ago.

Sedentary indoor lifestyle

Syndrome X: Diseases of the lifestyle of modern man
Now we don't even have to get up to change the channel (Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Western civilisation has built in convenience into everyday life, so much so that many people choose to drive everywhere instead of walk, and rarely get exercise. Even the labour-saving devices in the home have reduced the physical activity level necessary to do housework like washing clothes by hand or kneading dough to make bread. Sitting down indoors too much can contribute greatly to obesity, and therefore also to the prevalence of Syndrome X, which estimates to affect as many as a quarter of European adults.

Over-fuelling a body that doesn't require the extra energy means that the extra is laid down as fat, instead of being used to power the body to move around. The lifestyle to which humans have adapted over hundreds of thousands of years involved walking most places (before the car was invented), eating what was grown locally (little sugar or processed foods), and spending a lot of time outdoors. Nowadays, lack of outside time and overuse of suncream can cause vitamin D deficiency, which, as detailed in a 2009 Chinese study by the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences et al, is associated with the presence of Syndrome X in older people. Although the link is not yet proven, it is another hint that the mismatch between human bodies and the so-called perks of living in a modern world may be dangerous to our health.

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