People with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease and a stroke than those who don’t have diabetes. And these heart problems can surface at a younger age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the last two decades, the number of adults diagnosed with diabetes has more than doubled. About 38 million people have diabetes, and an additional 97 million people have pre-diabetes, or are on the verge of getting it.
Leila Ganjehei, MD, a cardiologist with Kaiser Permanente in Vallejo, explains how diabetes can damage the heart and what people can do about it.
How does diabetes affect heart health?
People with diabetes have too much sugar in their blood. High blood sugar can damage the blood vessels that feed the heart and the nerves that control the heart.
They’re also at increased risk for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Both conditions raise the risk of heart disease. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are all aspects of metabolic syndrome and occur together because they share similar risk factors and common causes. In a variety of ways, diabetes also damages the cardiovascular system and raises cholesterol.
Increased cholesterol can raise the risk of heart attack or stroke. Cholesterol is a form of fat found in blood vessels. Cholesterol can form plaque on damaged artery walls and contribute to artery hardening.
People with diabetes, especially those with uncontrolled diabetes, are also more likely to have heart failure.
With heart failure, the heart can’t pump blood well. This can cause a person’s legs to swell. It can also cause fluid to collect in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.
Heart failure is likely to worsen over time. Catching and treating it early can help relieve symptoms and stop or delay it from worsening.
How can people with diabetes minimize its effects on the heart?
First, it’s important to catch diabetes early. Lifestyle changes and medications can help control blood sugar levels.
Your doctor can also help you control risk factors, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Can the damage caused by diabetes be corrected or reversed?
By controlling blood sugar levels, the changes can be stopped. Some new diabetes medications can partially reverse the heart damage caused by diabetes and lead to improved heart health.
What lifestyle changes can help with diabetes and heart health?
Simple lifestyle changes that protect your heart can also help with diabetes:
- Eat healthy food
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Control stress
- Stop smoking
- Take medications as prescribed