Stethoscope examining patient's heart
Heart disease is the most common cause of death in diabetic adults over the age of 65. It is almost twice as likely to affect diabetics than non-diabetics.

Understanding How Diabetes Affects the Heart

Diabetes is a condition which is becoming more and more widespread all the time. Around 29 million Americans are currently thought to be affected by diabetes; that’s 1 in 11 of the population. The International Diabetes Foundation estimates that this figure could increase to a staggering 1 in 10 by 2035.

This is a serious problem as diabetes can cause a number of different complications. One of the most dangerous of these is heart disease. Keep on reading to learn more about how diabetes affects the heart and ways to reduce your heart disease risk.

How Diabetes Affects the Heart

People with diabetes either cannot produce enough insulin or are resistant to its effects. Insulin is the hormone responsible for controlling blood sugar (glucose), and when it does not do this properly, too much glucose remains in the blood.

This glucose sticks to red blood cells and stops them from circulating as they should. This can cause blockages and damage to the blood vessels over time.

People with diabetes also often have higher cholesterol levels than non-diabetics. Cholesterol can build up in the blood vessels and form what are known as plaques. Over time, these plaques cause the arteries to narrow and become more rigid. This means that blood travels through the vessels more slowly than normal and can easily form clots.

These clots can block the blood vessels and stop vital nutrients and oxygen from reaching the heart, thus raising the risk of heart attacks. It also means that the heart has to work harder to pump the blood, leading to increased blood pressure. This condition is called atherosclerosis.

Diabetes can also cause damage to the nerves that supply the heart and the heart muscle itself. The longer a person has diabetes, the greater their risk of heart disease will be.

Damage to the blood vessels also increases the risk of other diabetes complications such as nerve damage and eye problems.

The Relationship Between Diabetes and Heart Disease

Many people with diabetes have a combination of symptoms known as metabolic syndrome, also sometimes called ‘Syndrome X.’ Metabolic syndrome can be diagnosed if three or more of the following symptoms are present:

  • Obesity
  • High triglyceride levels
  • High blood pressure
  • High fasting glucose levels
  • Low levels of HDL cholesterol (the ‘good’ cholesterol)
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People who have a combination of these symptoms are at a much higher risk of heart disease than the general population. However, all diabetics have a higher than average risk of heart disease, even if they do not fit these criteria exactly.

It is also thought that many people with diabetes have higher levels of inflammation in their bodies than normal. This chronic inflammation is closely linked with obesity and heart disease.

Diabetes and Heart Disease Statistics

Heart disease is the most common cause of death in diabetic adults over the age of 65. It is almost twice as likely to affect diabetics than non-diabetics.

These figures were confirmed by a report called the National Diabetes Audit carried out during 2010-11 in the UK. The report provided some interesting statistics regarding just how much diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and strokes.

The audit found that people with diabetes were 71.3 percent more likely to suffer from angina, 48 percent is more likely to have a heart attack, 64.9 percent is more likely to suffer from heart failure, and 24.9 percent is more likely to have a stroke compared with the general population.

How to Prevent Heart Disease With Diabetes

If you have diabetes, there are certain steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing heart disease. These include keeping your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels under control. You should have your HBAc1, blood pressure, and cholesterol checked at least once a year to ensure that they stay within a healthy range.

Diet and Lifestyle

You can also reduce your risk of heart disease by making some modifications to your diet and lifestyle.

Keeping your weight under control is vital as obesity is linked with an increased risk of heart disease. This is especially true if your weight is concentrated around your waist. Men should aim to keep their waist measurements under 40 inches, and women should aim for under 35 inches to reduce the risk of heart disease.

One of the best ways to control your weight is by exercising regularly, especially with activities that raise your heart rate slightly. If you have not exercised in a while, start slowly and gradually build up to doing more over time. Try and find something you enjoy to make exercising less of a chore and easier to stick to in the long run.

Another important factor in maintaining a healthy weight is diet. Try to reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet by swapping butter and other fats from animal sources for unsaturated, plant-based alternatives such as olive oil. Trim excess fat from meat before cooking, and choose low-fat versions of dairy products such as yogurt and cheese.

Replace unhealthy snacks such as cakes and cookies with fruit, nuts, and seeds, and try to keep your sugar intake to a minimum.

You should also reduce your salt intake as too much salt can increase your blood pressure. Avoid processed foods and ready-made meals which are often high in salt, fat, and sugar. Cook your meals from scratch whenever you can, and use herbs and spices for flavor rather than adding extra salt.

Quit Smoking

If you smoke, you should stop as soon as possible as smoking greatly increases your risk of heart disease. If you need some extra help, ask your pharmacist or physician about the various options available to support you while you quit.

Take Your Medication as Prescribed

Finally, always take any prescribed medication exactly as directed by your doctor. This will help to keep your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol under control, and help to prevent heart disease.