Cardiometabolic risk factors influence white matter hyperintensity (WMH) development: in metabolic syndrome (MetS), higher WMH load is often reported but the relationships between specific cardiometabolic variables, WMH load and cognitive performance are uncertain. We investigated these in a Brazilian sample (aged 50–85) with (N = 61) and without (N = 103) MetS. Stepwise regression models identified effects of cardiometabolic and demographic variables on WMH load (from FLAIR MRI) and verbal recall performance. WMH volume was greater in MetS, but verbal recall performance was not impaired. Age showed the strongest relationship with WMH load. Across all participants, systolic blood pressure (SBP) and fasting blood glucose were also contributors, and WMH volume was negatively associated with verbal recall performance. In non-MetS, higher HbA1c, SBP, and number of MetS components were linked to poorer recall performance while higher triglyceride levels appeared to be protective. In MetS only, these relationships were absent but education exerted a strongly protective effect on recall performance. Thus, results support MetS as a construct: the clustering of cardiometabolic variables in MetS alters their individual relationships with cognition; instead, MetS is characterised by a greater reliance on cognitive reserve mechanisms. In non-MetS, strategies to control HbA1c and SBP should be prioritised as these have the largest impact on cognition.