How Does Diabetes Affect Your Heart Health
What's the Link Between Diabetes and Heart Disease?
Every time you eat, your body breaks down the food into sugars, particularly glucose, which travel through the blood, giving energy to your cells. The hormone insulin plays a major role in helping your body turn glucose into energy.
When you have diabetes, your body isn't able to use insulin effectively or doesn't make enough of it to properly break down glucose. Your blood sugar levels can rise, which puts stress on your organs, including your heart. Having diabetes is one of the major risk factors for having heart disease and people with diabetes are at least twice as likely to die from heart disease than people without diabetes1.
Controlling your diabetes can help to lower your risk for heart disease. Making lifestyle changes can both help lower your heart disease risk and improve your diabetes.
How Diabetes Affects the Heart
Diabetes can affect the health of the heart in several ways. When blood sugar levels are consistently high, the blood vessels are more likely to become damaged.
Additionally, people who have diabetes might be more likely to have other conditions that affect heart health or they might be more likely to have lifestyle habits that affect the heart.
For example, people with diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure. About one-third of the adult population in the U.S. has high blood pressure and about two-thirds of people with diabetes also have high blood pressure2. When your blood pressure is high, your heart has to work harder to pump blood through the body, which puts more strain on the heart.
There also seems to be a link between diabetes and high cholesterol levels. People with diabetes tend to have high levels of LDL cholesterol (aka the "bad" cholesterol) and triglycerides and low levels of HDL cholesterol (aka the "good" cholesterol)3.
A person's lifestyle habits can also play a part in affecting heart health. People who have diabetes and who smoke or are physically inactive are likely to have a higher risk of heart disease.
How to Control Your Diabetes
For many people, getting diabetes under control is the first step toward preventing heart problems. There are several steps you can take to control diabetes and improve your health.
The first thing to do is monitor your blood sugar. An A1C test calculates your average blood sugar level over a three-month period. The goal is often to have an A1C below 7%4.
Along with measuring your A1C, you also want to regularly track your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels. Your doctor can help you determine the goal levels for each.
To get your diabetes under control, you'll likely need to make some changes to your habits, such as changing your diet and finding ways to get more exercise or physical activity. When it comes to diet, aim to increase the number of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains you eat and to decrease the amount of processed or sugary foods.
Look for low-fat sources of protein, such as lean cuts of meat, low-fat dairy, or beans (which are also a great source of fiber). Replace sugary drinks such as soda or juice with water.
You'll need to see your doctor regularly if you have diabetes. Usually, people with diabetes meet with their healthcare providers at least twice a year. During your visits, your physician will measure your blood pressure and weigh you. They'll also perform an A1C test twice a year and will schedule lab work for your cholesterol annually.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Heart
Many of the things you do to manage your diabetes, such as eating a low-fat, healthy diet, and exercising more, also help to protect your heart. Monitoring your cholesterol levels and blood pressure is also important for heart health.
Additionally, managing your stress levels is critical for the health of your heart and for your diabetes. Being diagnosed with a chronic medical condition can increase your stress. Finding ways to cope or developing techniques that lower stress, such as practicing meditation or yoga, will help protect your heart.
Your Options if You Have Heart Disease and Diabetes
If you are diagnosed with heart disease and diabetes, you have several treatment options. If you have arrhythmia and diabetes, a pacemaker can help control the rhythm of your heart. Up to 20% of people with diabetes are likely to be diagnosed with arrhythmia5.
Medications can also help you treat heart disease or diabetes. Your doctor might recommend taking aspirin or might prescribe a statin to improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of a heart attack.
Your medical provider is an essential resource to you if you have diabetes and are concerned about your heart health. Checking in with them regularly can help you make sure your numbers are good and can help you make changes or get the treatments you need to protect your health.
1. Diabetes, American Heart Association, https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/diabetes/why-diabetes-matters/cardiovascular-disease--diabetes
2. High Blood Pressure, American Diabetes Association, https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-risk/prevention/high-blood-pressure
3. Cholesterol Abnormalities and Diabetes, American Heart Association, https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/diabetes/why-diabetes-matters/cholesterol-abnormalities--diabetes
4. 4 Steps to Manage Your Diabetes for Life, NIDDK, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/managing-diabetes/4-steps
5. Diabetes and arrhythmias, Oxford Medicine Online, https://oxfordmedicine.com/view/10.1093/med/9780198784906.001.0001/med-9780198784906-chapter-221