With more U.S. children than ever before dealing with diabetes, health experts are warning that many others may be heading in that direction, courtesy of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that have been shown to raise the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Even young children can be affected. A new study from Kansas shows that out of 375 second- and third-grade students, 5 percent had metabolic syndrome and 45 percent had one or two risk factors for it.

Those risk factors include central obesity (a big waist), elevated blood pressure, high blood levels of fats called triglycerides, low levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol, and higher-than-normal blood sugar levels (yet not high enough to be diagnosed with diabetes). Those problems can often be overcome with a healthy diet and physical activity.

Click here to read Web MD's "Child Obesity: 8 Red Flags to Watch For."

Global Problem

The findings were presented in Nashville at the American College of Sports Medicine's 52nd Annual Meeting. But American kids aren't the only ones at risk for metabolic syndrome.

Earlier this week, it was reported that half a million European children may be facing metabolic syndrome. That news came from the 14th European Congress on Obesity, held in Athens, Greece.

Click here to read Web MD's "Exercise May Reduce Metabolic Syndrome Risks."

Syndrome Seen in 7-Year-Olds

The Kansas data comes from a three-year project that aims to boost physical activity at school. The study is still being conducted. So far, the researchers have released figures on the kids' health status at the beginning of the experiment.

Out of about 2,000 children in the study, 375 got in-depth blood tests. That let exercise physiologist Katrina DuBose, PhD, and colleagues screen for metabolic syndrome.

"I was pretty surprised to see the prevalence of 5 percent," DuBose tells WebMD. She says she had seen U.S. data from 1999-2002 showing that 6 percent of U.S. adolescents had metabolic syndrome during 1999-2002 and expected that numbers to be lower for her much-younger students.

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Most Common Risk Factor: High Blood Pressure

To be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, the children had to have at least three of the condition's risk factors. Many more were teetering on the border. Of the 45% with one or two risk factors, the most common factor was high blood pressure.

That also surprised DuBose. "I would have thought that obesity was going to be the most common component," she says. DuBose says she checked other studies and found that "increased blood pressure in children seems to be a bigger problem than people might intuitively think."

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Saving Grace

Children (or adults, for that matter) can turn the trend around. "The good news is that at any point in a person's life, these things can be modified and changed," says DuBose. "It's relatively easy. A lot of it is improvements in food choices -- like more fruits and vegetables and fewer junk foods -- and going out and being more active."

Incorporate physical activity throughout a child's day, says DuBose, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kansas. That could mean going outside to play a game of tag or embedding exercise into the school day, she suggests.

Health habits learned in youth tend to carry over into adulthood -- for better or worse. Getting on the right track at a young age can yield years of benefits, and it's never too late to start.

It's a good idea to check in with a doctor first. Some metabolic syndrome risk factors (such as cholesterol and triglyceride levels) aren't usually checked in routine pediatric visits.

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Katrina DuBose, PhD, exercise physiologist and postdoctoral fellow, University of Kansas. American College of Sports Medicine's 52nd Annual Meeting, Nashville, June 1-4, 2005. Reuters. Associated Press. News release, American College of Sports Medicine.