Evidence from epidemiologic studies that central obesity precedes future metabolic change and does not occur concurrently with the appearance of the blood pressure, glucose, and lipid abnormalities that characterize the metabolic syndrome (MetS) has been lacking. Longitudinal surveys were conducted in Mauritius in 1987, 1992, and 1998, and in Australia in 2000 and 2005 (AusDiab). This analysis included men and women (aged > or = 25 years) in three cohorts: AusDiab 2000-2005 (n = 5,039), Mauritius 1987-1992 (n = 2,849), and Mauritius 1987-1998 (n = 1,999). MetS components included waist circumference, systolic blood pressure, fasting and 2-h postload plasma glucose, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, triglycerides, and homeostasis model assessment of insulin sensitivity (HOMA-S) (representing insulin sensitivity). Linear regression was used to determine which baseline components predicted deterioration in other MetS components over 5 years in AusDiab and 5 and 11 years in Mauritius, adjusted for age, sex, and ethnic group. Baseline waist circumference predicted deterioration (P < 0.01) in four of the other six MetS variables tested in AusDiab, five of six in Mauritius 1987-1992, and four of six in Mauritius 1987-1998. In contrast, an increase in waist circumference between baseline and follow-up was only predicted by insulin sensitivity (HOMA-S) at baseline, and only in one of the three cohorts. These results suggest that central obesity plays a central role in the development of the MetS and appears to precede the appearance of the other MetS components.