How managing your diabetes can help protect your heart (and vice versa!)
If you’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes your doctor has probably already told you that you’re at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, but what does that mean and what can you do to decrease your overall risk of developing heart disease or stroke?
First of all, there are lots of factors that figure into an individual’s risk for any type of disease or condition. Some of them are genetic, some are lifestyle choices (hint: these are the easiest to change), and some of them are health status-related (such as being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes).
You can have a genetic predisposition for a certain condition which means you have a family history of a certain disease – such as heart disease. This typically increases your chances of also developing the condition as you have a shared genetic component. But if you’ve made thoughtful lifestyle choices that actively combat this family history, you can often significantly reduce your risk of “following in your family’s footsteps.”
If you’ve already developed a condition, like diabetes or heart disease, then managing your condition with your provider’s advice, such as through the use of medications like aspirin and Metformin you can reduce your risk of further complications. And if you combine that with improved lifestyle choices like physical activity, healthy eating, and weight loss as needed, you can often stall or reverse the progress of some of these diseases.
So let’s talk about the major concerns when it comes to heart disease and diabetes and what you CAN do to reduce your risk and avoid further health challenges.
Diabetes and heart disease
While we do like keeping things on a positive note, it’s important to know your risk and why your efforts matter. People with type 2 diabetes (and prediabetes!) are twice as likely to die of heart disease than those who do not battle high blood sugars. And if you’re a woman with diabetes, you’re 40% more likely to suffer from heart disease and 25% more likely to suffer a stroke than a man. And considering that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, that’s a concern that needs your immediate attention ladies!
The two biggest risk factors that come along with diabetes are heart attack and stroke. In conjunction with those events are high blood pressure (hypertension) and high cholesterol (lipid disorder, hyperlipidemia, or hypercholesterolemia).
Over time, high blood sugar can damage your blood vessels. This damage to your circulatory system can affect a wide range of bodily functions and health. The longer your blood sugar remains high, the greater the damage and the greater the chance that you will develop problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and so on.
What exactly is heart disease?
Heart disease or cardiovascular disease can refer to a number of different conditions but most involve either your heart muscle, your blood vessels, or both. The two biggest and most damaging complications of heart disease are heart attack and stroke.
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to part of the heart is blocked. How long this blockage lasts determines the amount of damage to the heart as heart muscle tissue can begin to die due to the lack of oxygen.
Blood flow becomes blocked due to a clot. If you also suffer from high cholesterol there may be a buildup of plaque in your arteries (also called atherosclerosis) which can make the chances of a blood clot event even higher.
What exactly is a stroke?
A stroke occurs when the same thing happens but in the brain. The most common form of stroke is called an ischemic stroke. Another type of stroke, hemorrhagic, is when a blood vessel in the brain actually bursts. This often happens as a result of high blood pressure.
So if you have both high blood pressure and high cholesterol, your risk of both types of strokes is a concern. Additionally, new studies are showing that there may be a link between stroke and additional heart problems such as heart attack, congestive heart failure, and an irregular heart condition called afib (short for atrial fibrillation).
While many are familiar with the most common signs of a heart attack, signs of a stroke can often be missed, and the earlier you treat a stroke, the better your recovery and outlook will be. Get familiar with the warning signs of a stroke at SecondsCount.org.
How is high blood pressure connected?
High blood pressure or hypertension makes your heart work harder to pump blood throughout your body. This puts a strain on blood vessels that may already be weakened by diabetes due to prolonged high blood sugars. In addition to putting a strain on your heart, high blood pressure can also affect your eyes and vision as well as your kidney function.
What about high cholesterol?
You probably already know that there are three main types of cholesterol found in our blood; HDL or the “good” cholesterol, LDL or the “bad” cholesterol, and triglycerides. When it comes to high cholesterol we’re usually talking about elevated levels of LDL in the bloodstream.
High levels of cholesterol can lead to a buildup of plaque in your arteries. This narrows the blood vessels and increased cholesterol can cause blood clots to form. If these clots get caught in a blood vessel narrowed by plaque you’re in for a heart attack or a stroke, or any number of other unpleasant events.
Putting it all together with diabetes
By now you may be thinking, “holy cow, I am doomed!” but hold up. While you can’t control your genetics and family history, and if you’ve already been diagnosed with diabetes, there’s no “cure” yet, you do have control over the third factor and that’s lifestyle choices.
This includes what you eat, how active you are, how stressed you are, and how well you care for yourself both physically, emotionally, and mentally. So here’s an easy way to prioritize what to focus on. And it begins with heading back to kindergarten and relearning your ABCs.
Relearning your ABCs for reducing your risks
A stands for A1C
This is a blood test that measures your average blood glucose levels over a 3-month period. Most will want to target an A1C of 7% or less but consult with your healthcare team to determine the best target for you as an individual because everyone is different and has different contributing factors that must be taken into account.
If you have type 2 diabetes and you don’t know your A1C or you haven’t been tested in a while, it’s time to call your doctor and get your prior test results or schedule the test and talk about next steps.
B stands for Blood Pressure
Long-term elevated blood pressure puts unnecessary strain on your blood vessels and reducing that strain either through the use of medication or lifestyle change can have tremendous health benefits. If you don’t know your blood pressure or if you know you have hypertension and you aren’t being treated for it, it’s time to get a check-up and explore your options. The quicker you act, the better. So don’t delay.
C stands for Cholesterol
What was your last cholesterol reading? If you don’t know, and you do have diabetes or other related health concerns then it’s time to have a lipid profile done via a simple blood test. This is usually done as part of your annual checkup so if you had a blood test recently, call your healthcare provider and find out what your cholesterol reading was. It’s always a good habit to ask for a copy of all your lab tests so you can keep your results on file.
If you need help understanding your numbers there are lots of great resources online like this one from WebMD. However, it’s always preferable to speak with your healthcare team as they know your exact health status and situation.
Some of the biggest changes you can make to lower your cholesterol include eating healthier and increasing your physical activity. If you combine that with a statin or other medication as prescribed by a physician, most people are able to get their cholesterol back into the safe zone with relative ease.
And don’t forget that little s…
S stands for Stop Smoking
Smoking narrows your blood vessels and narrow blood vessels combined with diabetes and its usual buddies of high blood pressure and high cholesterol make for a very dangerous combination. This also applies to getting second-hand smoke and to vaping.
By quitting and by avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke, you almost immediately and significantly reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, nerve damage and disease (including amputation), cancer, kidney disease, eye disease and vision impairment, and a host of other conditions.
It’s also possible that quitting may improve your blood sugars, your blood pressure, and your overall cholesterol profile. You’ll also give your lungs and circulatory system a break and will likely see an increased ability for physical activity and stamina.
Get help with quitting smoking for you or someone you love who is ready to stop at Smokefree.gov where you can create your quit plan, download useful apps to help you stay quit, and get 24/7 support.
If you have more questions about diabetes and your heart, post them in the comments below. But if you’re committed to making the changes you need to control your prediabetes and type 2 diabetes then I urge you to reach out to your healthcare team and ask for support. They should always be your starting point for the best advice and guidance for your individual situation.