Metabolic syndrome is present when someone has at least three out of five conditions: abdominal obesity, high blood fat, low HDL cholesterol (the good type of cholesterol), high blood pressure and impaired glucose tolerance.
The combination is believed to increase the risk of heart disease twofold, as well as the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
A representative sample of about 1,800 people aged 18 and over was included in the research. The participants had all provided blood samples and had measurements taken in the Canadian Health Measures Survey of 2007-2009.
The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Monday, said 17 per cent of those between the ages of 18 and 39 had metabolic syndrome, compared to 39 per cent of those aged 70 to 79.
"Greater efforts are needed to address poor lifestyle habits, especially among younger adults and poorer Canadians," wrote Natalie Riediger, a PhD candidate at the University of Manitoba and her co-author Ian Clara.
In a telephone interview from Winnipeg, Riediger explained that metabolic syndrome is basically a combination of risk factors for heart disease, not really a diagnosable disease. Many Canadians wouldn't be familiar with it, she suggested.
"You wouldn't go to a doctor's office and be told you have metabolic syndrome," she said.
"It's basically a way of being able to distinguish people who are at high risk because it's a composite of risk factors. And also it's a composite of risk factors that usually occur together."
It's a useful definition for doctors because a lot of these risk factors cluster and if they see one, they should check the others.
"The most common combination of these risk factors we found were abdominal obesity, high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol. So it's important to look at blood lipids in people who are abdominally obese because that would further increase their risk of heart disease, so that would be important clinically."
This study helps to establish a baseline for rates in the population, so that comparisons can be made in the future, Riediger said.
"The other important part of the study was just looking at income and education and how metabolic syndrome presented in the different education and income groups. ... People from households with lower education and income levels had higher prevalence of metabolic syndrome, and overall they just had more components of the metabolic syndrome," she noted.
The study reiterates messages about the need to develop preventative strategies to deal with chronic disease and address the "huge gap" in health between those of low and high socioeconomic status, she said.
"Individually people can do things, but broader policies also help."