Heart disease is the top cause of death for both women and men in the U.S. Meanwhile, the amount of people globally who’ve been diagnosed with diabetes is continuing to grow year after year. So how does diabetes affect the heart? What do these two facts have to do with each other?
It’s simple: if you have diabetes, your chances of having heart disease double.
Moreover, you’re more likely than a non-diabetic to get heart disease at a younger age. That heart disease risk only grows the longer you have diabetes. People with diabetes also have greater chances of having particular risk factors for heart disease, like high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
This doesn’t mean, however, that, as a person with diabetes, you can’t still protect the health of your heart. Managing your blood sugar levels is certainly a major part of it, but it’s not all you can do; there are actually many proactive steps you can take to lower your risk of heart disease as someone with diabetes.
By understanding how diabetes affects the heart, you can start making small but significant changes to certain lifestyle habits that both lower your risk of heart disease and help better manage your diabetes.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic health condition affecting the body’s ability to produce or effectively utilize insulin to transform food into energy. When the body breaks down food, it releases glucose, or sugar, into the bloodstream. The pancreas, then, produces insulin and releases it into the bloodstream to transport that blood sugar into the various cells of the body to use as energy.
When diabetes interferes with the body’s ability to properly make or use insulin, cells cease to respond to insulin causing an excess of blood sugar to remain in the bloodstream. This can lead to severe medical concerns over time, like kidney disease, vision loss, and–yes–heart disease.
Around 30 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, eight million of whom have yet to be diagnosed with the condition. What’s more, 86 million more Americans present signs of prediabetes.
What Is Heart Disease?
Heart disease is a term for a variety of problems affecting the heart. Similarly, the term cardiovascular disease is just a broader and more generalized term that includes heart disease but also refers to other related medical problems and conditions like blood vessel disease and stroke.
While heart failure is certainly serious, it does not mean your heart has ceased beating; rather, it means the heart is unable to pump blood sufficiently well. As a result, your legs can start swelling and your lungs can start building up fluid.
This, in turn, can make it more difficult to breathe. Typically, heart failure worsens over time; however, with early diagnosis and prompt and proper treatment, you can alleviate some of the symptoms of heart failure and halt or impede the condition from worsening any further.
People who have diabetes also have a greater likelihood of having heart disease and heart failure.
How Does Diabetes Affect the Heart?
High blood sugar from diabetes can harm your blood vessels and the nerves controlling your heart. As time goes on, this can result in heart disease.
Adult diabetics have almost twice the likelihood of developing heart disease or having a stroke as adult non-diabetics.
Diabetics are also prone to developing heart disease at younger ages than non-diabetics. Meanwhile, cardiovascular disease is responsible for two of every three deaths in those with type 2 diabetes.
A diabetic’s heart muscle does not heal as fast or fully after a heart attack as the heart muscle of a non-diabetic person. The danger of complications like heart failure is also notably higher in people with diabetes than in those without it.
What Causes Heart Disease in People With Diabetes?
Diabetes can cause the heart muscle to stiffen, and it can damage blood vessels. Ultimately, this can result in difficulties like retaining fluid and potential heart failure.
Diabetics have a greater likelihood of having other conditions in addition to diabetes that increase heart disease risk even further.
Some of these primary conditions caused by, associated with, or co-occurring with diabetes that are also risk factors for heart disease include:
- High blood pressure – High blood pressure raises the force with which blood flows through your arteries, posing a risk of damaging arterial walls.
- High LDL – Too much of this type of cholesterol commonly known as “bad cholesterol” can cause plaque to develop on already damaged arterial walls.
- High triglycerides / Low HDL – Medical experts now widely believe that too much of this kind of fat in the blood along with low levels of HDL cholesterol, or what’s commonly called “good cholesterol” can be a risk factor for the hardening of the arteries.
Having any one of these conditions along with diabetes elevates your risk of developing heart disease; having more than one of these conditions and diabetes only exacerbates that risk all the more.
Because there are no noticeable symptoms of these conditions, the only way you can find out if you have any of them is by making sure your doctor regularly tests your cholesterol and triglyceride levels and either having your doctor check your blood pressure or getting an at-home blood pressure monitor and checking it periodically yourself.
Diabetes and Coronary Artery Disease
The most common type of cardiovascular disease is coronary artery disease. It results from plaque buildup in the blood vessels supplying blood and oxygen to the blood, known as coronary arteries.
When this happens, it interferes with the proper flow of blood to and from the heart. Specifically, plaque is composed of deposits of cholesterol that narrow the arteries and reduce blood flow, a process known as atherosclerosis or, more commonly, hardening of the arteries. When the blood flow to the brain reduces, the result can be a stroke.
Those with diabetes have greater chances of acquiring premature accelerated coronary artery disease. Compared to non-diabetic patients, the arterial walls of diabetics have greater fatty deposits and start hardening sooner and without much warning.
This makes treatment for the condition challenging and can lead it to progress quicker than it otherwise, ordinarily might. As a result, diabetics have greater chances of recurring heart attacks and heart muscle tissue scarring. These, in turn, increase the danger of sudden cardiac death.
You can also experience hardening of the arteries in other places in the body. One of the first indications that someone with diabetes is suffering from cardiovascular disease, in fact, is the hardening of the arteries in the feet and legs, known as peripheral arterial disease, or PAD.
Other Risk Factors for Heart Disease?
Many lifestyle factors also increase one’s risk of heart disease, whether you have diabetes or not. For that matter, these lifestyle factors increase the risk of the above-named conditions that also pose heart disease risk factors.
- Being obese or overweight
- Getting insufficient physical activity
- A diet high in trans fats, saturated fats, salt (sodium), and cholesterol
- Smoking or using smokeless tobacco products like snuff, dip or chewing tobacco
- Excessive alcohol consumption
How to Lower the Risk of Heart Disease
The fortunate news for people with diabetes is that the very same actions you take to manage your diabetes help reduce your odds of developing heart disease or having a stroke as well.
As such, the lifestyle changes listed below can both help reduce your heart disease risk (or, if you already have heart disease, keep it from advancing) and aid you in managing your diabetes.
- Eat a healthy and balanced diet – This includes more fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains and lean proteins, and fewer sweets, fast foods, trans fats, and processed foods. Drink more water and less alcohol and sugary beverages.
- Make efforts to achieve your healthy weight – If you’re not sure what your exact healthy weight is, ask your physician.
- Get more active – Physical activity doesn’t just help with your weight; it also helps your body to make better use of insulin and reduces your risk of heart disease.
- Manage your stress – Stress can lead to unhealthy habits and behaviors; practice deep breathing and other relaxation exercises and seek support from trusted family and friends and/or a professional mental health counselor.
- Keep tabs on your numbers – In addition to monitoring your blood sugar, also track your blood pressure and cholesterol levels (both good and bad.)
While early detection is one of the best ways to defend yourself from the threats of heart disease, late detection can be detrimental. This is particularly dangerous for people with diabetes who may not notice the chest discomfort or pain that often alerts people to a problem with their heart due to the nerve damage diabetes can cause.
This can mean a person with diabetes does not have their heart disease diagnosed until it’s already advanced to the point at which their treatment options are fewer. The lack of adequate warning signs can also lead to what’s known as a “silent heart attack.”
How to Treat Heart Disease If You Have Diabetes
Treatment for both heart disease and diabetes generally includes taking medications to keep the conditions and their respective symptoms under control. Among the medications your doctor prescribes may include those to help regulate your blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels.
Finding the right treatment options for you can help reduce what side effects you may experience from treatment and make it easier for you to comply with and adhere to your treatment protocols.
In addition to medical treatment interventions, the same steps you can take to help prevent and reduce the risk of heart disease can also help to control both illnesses.
What is National Diabetes Heart Connection Day?
Thanks to a U.S. senate resolution that passed with a unanimous vote, November 9, has been declared National Diabetes Heart Health Awareness Day.
On this day, first recognized in 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services, in cooperation with heart health and diabetes care experts around the country, ramps up efforts to educate the public on the symptoms, treatment, and risks of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, including how does diabetes affect the heart.
In addition to raising awareness, medical experts and government officials work to coordinate efforts to encourage federally funded efforts, including actions and education, to address cardiovascular disease and diabetes both individually and in regard to their comorbidity.
Manage Your Diabetes, Protect Your Heart
When examining the question: “How does diabetes affect your heart?”, the answer reveals a web of interconnections in which protecting and caring for one helps you protect and care for the other.
Managing your diabetes helps you prevent heart disease, and taking steps to protect your heart from heart disease helps you to manage your diabetes. By the same token, a failure to take care of your heart health or manage your diabetes can lead to problems with both.
While diabetes and heart disease are both chronic and incurable conditions, new scientific advances and therapeutic options available can help reduce the danger of you developing heart issues.
With the right guidance and assistance from your cardiovascular and diabetes care teams and experts, you can proceed with living a healthy and productive life unimpeded by heart disease or diabetes.