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The Link Between Diabetes and Heart Disease: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Doctor Q&A

MD, Cardiologist, AdventHealth Shawnee Mission

Some things just go together naturally – peanut butter and jelly, Barbie and Ken, Holmes and Watson - and yes, diabetes and heart disease.

It’s true. The risk of heart disease death and stroke is twice as high in people with diabetes.

And right now, an estimated 29 million Americans have the disease. Another 86 million adults have prediabetes, a condition of elevated blood sugar just below the threshold for diabetes.

How Does Diabetes Lead to Heart Disease?

The biggest heart health risk for people with diabetes is called atherosclerotic heart disease, also known as hardening of the arteries.

This condition occurs when high levels of sugar in the bloodstream produce fatty materials, or plaques, within the arteries.

The buildup of these plaques can cause the arteries to become stiff and hard, which can lead to obstruction of blood flow and possibly a heart attack.

And there’s more…

  • People with diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, risk factors that greatly increase the chances of having a heart attack.
  • Heart failure, a gradual weakening of the heart muscle, is also significantly more prevalent in patients with diabetes.

Because both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are the result of abnormal metabolism of sugar in the blood, all patients with diabetes are at risk of compromised vascular and cardiac health.

Research is ongoing regarding the prevalence of heart disease among patients with type 1 diabetes (also known as juvenile diabetes), as compared to type 2, but we do know this:

  • Type 1 diabetes is thought to be primarily genetic in its origin and cannot be prevented, while type 2 definitely can.
  • Although there is no cure for diabetes, taking steps to prevent type 2 diabetes, or manage your existing diagnosis, can mitigate your chances of heart disease.

Preventing Type 2 Diabetes Can Begin Now

While the majority of new cases occur between the ages of 45 and 65, there’s plenty you can do RIGHT NOW to reduce your risk of diabetes in the future. Follow these guidelines:

Eat Right

The primary culprits associated with a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes are sugar-sweetened beverages and adherence to a Western-style diet characterized by high-fat, high-sugar and highly processed foods.

Generally, and simply put, losing excess body fat is your best defense.

Choose your food wisely, following these tips:

Do Consume…

  • Water
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains
  • Foods that are in keeping with a Mediterranean-style diet (more fruits and vegetables, more seafood, less dairy)

Don’t Consume…

  • Trans-fats
  • Saturated fat
  • Sugary foods
  • Sugar-sweetened food and drink

Get Moving

Being sedentary increases the risk of obesity and, subsequently, your risk of type 2 diabetes. A simple regimen of brisk walking can do the trick.

Reduce Your Stress

Stress triggers the release of several hormones that increase blood sugar. Physical activity, social support and meditation help relieve stress.

Sleep well

Chronic sleep deprivation and poor quality sleep increase the risk for obesity and diabetes.

Keep Your Medical Appointments

See your doctor regularly to screen for possible early signs.

Other Ways to Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease

Diabetes is just one risk factor of heart disease. Your heart health is a function of your genetics combined with environmental factors.

Generally, you give yourself an advantage if you stick to your medical regimen, control your diet and manage all of your risk factors, both for diabetes and for atherosclerotic heart disease.

Whether or not you have been diagnosed with diabetes, follow these guidelines for better heart health: 

  • Keep your blood sugar as normal as possible.
  • Control your blood pressure, with medication if necessary. The target for people with diabetes is under 130/80.
  • Get your cholesterol numbers under control. You may need to take medication to do this.
  • If you are overweight, lose weight to help lower your risk.
  • Ask your doctor if you should take an aspirin a day.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet such as the Mediterranean diet or DASH diet
  • Quit smoking.
  • Work to reduce daily stress.

We Can Help

AdventHealth Shawnee Mission is dedicated to the heart health of the entire community.

We can assess your risk in the following ways:

Take our online HEARTaware Risk Assessment. It’s fast, free and will provide you a personalized risk profile from which you can make informed decisions about your cardiac health.

Based on the results of this risk assessment, you may choose to have one or more of these additional in-depth screenings:

Preventive Cardiac Screening ($35)

Includes basic risk profiling (weight, blood pressure, waist measurement and more), fasting blood work and a personalized consult with a cardiac clinician

Calcium Scoring Package ($50)

Involves a CAT scan, specifically a heart scan, to detect calcium deposits in the coronary arteries, as well as a reading of the findings by a cardiologist and a follow-up session with a cardiac nurse

Peripheral Vascular Package ($79)

A limited screening of the carotid arteries in your neck and the abdominal aorta, utilizing ultrasound and blood pressure readings to identify vessel wall deficiencies and restriction of blood flow

You also have the option to participate in all three screenings for $99.

We recommend you discuss the results of your screening with your primary care physician, who can help you address your needs moving forward.

If you don’t have a primary care doctor, take our survey to find a doctor that’s right for you.