Diabetes and your heart: Know your cardiovascular risks

February 1, 2021

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People with a diabetes diagnosis are twice as likely to also have heart disease or experience a stroke. And if you have diabetes, you’re more likely to have heart problems at a younger age. Thankfully, you can make some lifestyle changes to increase your heart health.

How a diabetes diagnosis affects your heart

When you have elevated blood sugar for a long time, it can damage your blood vessels and nerves. This damage increases your risk for other conditions that can lead to heart disease, such as:

  • High blood pressure, which puts excess pressure on your artery walls.
  • Excess LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, which can lead to plaque build-up on your arteries.
  • High triglycerides, which can contribute to the hardening of arteries.

Any of these health conditions increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is a term that encompasses all types of heart disease, stroke and blood vessel disease.

For example, you can have plaque buildup and artery hardening in the legs and feet, known as peripheral arterial disease (PAD). In many people with diabetes, a PAD diagnosis is the first sign that you have significantly increased cardiovascular risks.

What can I do if I have diabetes?

“If you have diabetes, the best treatment approach is to participate in a comprehensive diabetes management and education program,” says Raul Ayala, MD, family medicine provider with Adventist Health Medical Offices in Selma and Hanford, California.

What does a management and education program entail? Typically, it means that you will work with your healthcare provider on:

  • Your nutrition and diet
  • An optimal exercise plan
  • Increasing awareness of your personal risk factors

Do I have other risk factors?

If you have diabetes, the good news is that there are many lifestyle changes that can decrease your cardiovascular risks and improve your health. Some of the most important changes to make include:

  • Avoiding a diet high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol or sodium
  • Exercising most days of the week
  • Limiting your alcohol intake
  • Quitting smoking
  • Maintaining an optimal weight for your age and sex
  • Managing stress in a healthy manner

Dr. Ayala notes that, in general, adults with diabetes should engage in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for 30-60 minutes on most days of the week. “If you are overweight or obese, you should also reduce your caloric intake and increase your physical activity to achieve weight loss,” says Dr. Ayala.

Most crucially, speak with your healthcare provider about how you can manage your diabetes. Your healthcare provider can help connect you with specialists, such as dietitians or diabetes educators, as needed. These specialists are experts in helping you live a healthy life with a diabetes diagnosis.

If you need help managing diabetes, cardiovascular disease or other health concerns, find a healthcare provider near you.