Diabetes and Heart Disease: What You Need to Know

Many people know common complications of diabetes such as neuropathy (nerve damage), retinopathy (eye disease), and nephropathy (kidney disease). What you may not realize is that diabetes also increases your risk of developing certain cardiovascular issues and damaging your heart.

Key takeaways:
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    Diabetes, particularly not well managed diabetes, greatly increases your risk of certain cardiovascular diseases.
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    People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to die of heart disease than people without diabetes.
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    High blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol (hyperlipidemia), and high triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia) are all common heart conditions in patients with diabetes.
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    Eating healthy, exercising, and keeping your blood sugar at the target levels are some ways you can reduce the risk or progression of heart disease.
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    If you are experiencing stress or anxiety related to your diagnoses, seek help and support from medical professionals, family and friends, and others with the same conditions.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women of nearly all races and ethnicities. People with diabetes are twice as likely to be hospitalized for heart failure and 2 to 4 times more likely to die from heart disease than people without diabetes.

People with diabetes tend to develop other conditions that are associated with cardiovascular diseases, and those who are overweight or obese are at even greater risk. Approximately 68% of people age 65 or older with diabetes die from some form of heart disease.

Genetics and lifestyle factors, such as smoking, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol intake, and following an unhealthy diet, can also contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease in people with diabetes.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure (hypertension) results when the pressure of the blood pushing against the walls of the arteries is consistently higher than normal (above 140/90 mm Hg). About 60% of people with diabetes have high blood pressure. In general, there is an increased risk of high blood pressure as you get older, if you are female, and if you are black.

Patients do not usually experience symptoms of high blood pressure until they have a heart attack or chest pain (angina) – which is why it is so important to get your blood pressure checked at every doctor’s appointment and treat high blood pressure with medication and lifestyle changes to prevent more serious issues from developing.

High cholesterol

When cholesterol levels are high, it is known as hyperlipidemia. Cholesterol is made by the body and found in some food. It is used to build cells and produce certain hormones. High triglyceride levels are known as hypertriglyceridemia. Triglycerides store unused calories and provide the body with energy.

High cholesterol is a major risk factor for developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD), which is thought to be due to the build-up of plaque (a waxy substance) in the blood vessels that narrows the arteries. It is known as coronary heart disease (CAD) when it affects the heart, cerebrovascular disease (CVD) when it affects the brain, or peripheral arterial disease (PAD) when it affects the legs and feet.

There are also no symptoms of high cholesterol or triglycerides until it has progressed to a more serious condition such as CAD, CVD, or PAD. It is important to have your cholesterol checked regularly to get treatment for it immediately and potentially prevent other issues from developing.

How to prevent cardiovascular complications

Although you are at increased risk for developing cardiovascular issues the longer you have diabetes and chronically high blood sugar, there are things that you can do to help prevent or delay its progression, including:

  • Keep blood sugar as close to your target range as possible.
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Lose weight if you need to and keep a healthy weight.
  • Manage your blood pressure.
  • Manage your cholesterol levels.
  • Manage your stress levels and get support for managing your diabetes.
  • Stop smoking and drinking alcohol.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Keep up with oral hygiene (brushing and flossing every day).

Get support

People with cardiovascular issues tend to have more psychological and physical issues that can impact their quality of life than those without it. Having to juggle diabetes plus other serious medical issues can add stress and worry in your life. That is why it is important to take care of all aspects of your life – including your emotional well-being and your social support.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, sad, anxious, or very worried, talk to your healthcare team about the difficulties you are experiencing – this is important to get the care you need. Feeling this way is very common and normal. Seeing a mental health provider that has experience in treating patients dealing with diabetes complications can be helpful. Taking care of your emotional health can also improve your physical health, so addressing both the medical and psychological aspects can help to improve your overall quality of life.

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