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Diabetes and the Heart Disease Link

separator You may have heard this before: having diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease.

What does this mean, exactly? How serious is this “risk factor” business?

Well, pretty serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, people who have diabetes have a two to three times greater risk of dying of heart disease than people who don’t have diabetes. 

The more risk factors you have for heart disease, the higher at risk you are. Having diabetes is as serious a risk factor as the others—high levels of blood fats (cholesterol and triglycerides), family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, smoking, having an inactive lifestyle, being obese, eating an unhealthy diet, having high stress levels.

And there’s this additional information about the diabetes-heart disease link: people with diabetes are more likely to have risk factors for heart disease than people who don’t have diabetes. For example:

  • High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs two to three times more often in people with diabetes than in people who don’t have diabetes. Hypertension is one of the main risk factors for heart disease.
  • About 30 percent of people who have diabetes have higher levels of “bad” cholesterol and lower levels of “good” cholesterol—another heart disease risk factor.

In some ways, it appears that having diabetes and having an increase in other heart disease risk factors are intertwined.

What can you do about this risk?
Too much sugar in your blood can damage your heart and your blood vessels. The first thing you can do to manage diabetes as a risk factor for heart disease is to control your blood sugar as well as possible. In many ways, if you do this, you’re also doing things that lower your risk of heart disease:

Check your blood sugar as often as your healthcare team recommends. This helps control your diabetes, and it also helps keep sugar from damaging your heart and blood vessels

Maintain a healthy food plan. What’s good for diabetes, for the most part, is also good for your heart—high fiber fruits, vegetables and cereals; low hydrogenated and saturated fats; portion sizes that help you maintain a healthy weight.

Get regular exercise. This helps you manage your blood sugar, and it’s good for your heart.

Eliminate and manage risk factors you can control

Do you smoke? Having diabetes and smoking is not helping your heart. It’s really hard to quit smoking, but the benefits to your health are worth the effort. If you’ve tried to quit and haven’t been successful, try talking with your doctor to develop a quit plan. And be sure to read this month’s article about quitting smoking, part of our topic of the month articles on breaking addictions to cigarettes, food and prescription medication.

Do you have high blood pressure? Are you doing everything you can to control it in terms of diet, exercise and, if necessary, medication?

Do you have high cholesterol or high triglycerides? Are you taking all medication that’s been prescribed for you? Are you exercising regularly? Is your food plan geared toward keeping your blood fats in the healthy range? These are the things you need to do to manage blood fat levels.

See your doctor regularly
When you have diabetes, it’s important to visit your doctor regularly to make sure your diabetes itself is under control. But that’s not the only reason it’s important. During your doctor visits, you should be checked for early signs of heart disease. Blood tests can check your LDL and HDL cholesterol levels and your triglyceride levels. Blood pressure checks will see whether your current plan is keeping your pressure where it needs to be. And your doctor can listen to heart to make sure everything sounds okay.

The American Heart Association; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
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