Risk factors for heart disease? Among the most well known are smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, a couch-potato lifestyle and obesity. One of the most dangerous? Diabetes. Although diabetes is an endocrine disorder, its effects on heart health can be devastating. Simply having diabetes means you run at least twice the risk of developing heart disease than nondiabetics. It also means you’re vulnerable to heart disease at a younger-than-average age.
With diabetes, the body doesn’t use blood sugar, or glucose, efficiently. That’s because insulin—the hormone that’s responsible for helping glucose enter the body’s cells—is either absent, present in small amounts or otherwise unable to do its job.
Uncontrolled, diabetes can lead to all kinds of complications, one of the most serious being blood-vessel damage. Because diabetes disrupts the way food is processed, fats are more likely to stick to artery walls, speeding up the development of atherosclerosis, a condition in which blood vessels become clogged with plaque and other substances. And since blood needs more force to circulate through narrowed vessels, atherosclerosis may also set the stage for high blood pressure.
To make matters worse, about half of diabetics have high cholesterol—a condition that speeds the atherosclerosis process even more.
Together, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure and high cholesterol form a threesome that sends the odds of heart attack or stroke soaring.
If you’ve got diabetes, gaining control—and not just over your glucose levels—is crucial. You must also work extra hard to keep cholesterol levels, blood pressure and other factors in check. Start by paying attention to the behaviors you can do something about:
- Smoking. A habit that’s bad for anyone, smoking is even worse for diabetics. It causes vessels to narrow and encourages blood to clot—a combination that can lead to heart attack or stroke. If you have diabetes and you smoke, make an effort to stop.
- Obesity and diet. It’s no secret that being overweight hurts your heart health. Because you have diabetes, your doctor has probably given you a special diet. Following it should help you lose weight and keep glucose levels in check. If that doesn’t work, ask your doctor for guidance.
- Exercise. Besides helping your body make better use of glucose, aerobic activity will help you control your weight and condition your cardiovascular system. If you’ve been sedentary for a long time, ask your doctor if it’s okay to exercise, then start by taking a simple walk. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes most days of the week.
- High blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, take the steps discussed here and watch your salt intake. If your doctor has prescribed medication, continue to take it. (Because high blood pressure medication can throw glucose levels out of whack, work with your doctor to find the medication that’s right for you.)
- High blood cholesterol. Keep an eye on your fat intake, particularly saturated fat, and take any cholesterol-lowering medication your doctor has prescribed.
Because factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol are often “silent,” it’s important to see your doctor for regular checkups. He or she will keep tabs on your glucose and cholesterol levels and monitor your blood pressure.
If you have diabetes, you have a permanent reminder to take care of yourself. Let it serve as the motivation you need to pursue a long, healthful life.