Heart disease is the leading cause of death for adults in the United States. And if that isn’t concerning enough, adults with diabetes are twice as likely to develop heart disease compared to those without diabetes. With such a high risk associated with these conditions, it begs the question: why does diabetes increase your risk of heart disease?
Lalitha Rudraiah, M.D., a cardiologist at Henry Ford Health, answers some big questions about the link between heart disease and diabetes, and what can be done to minimize your risk of a heart disease diagnosis.
Q: Why are people with diabetes at a greater risk for heart disease?
Dr. Rudraiah: Diabetes seriously impacts how your body functions. While you may not necessarily notice any physical effects, over time, these changes can put you at a greater risk of developing other serious health conditions. Some effects of diabetes include:
- Chronic inflammation. Inflammation can affect any part of the body. Uncontrolled, or chronic inflammation can cause damage to the lining of large and small-sized arteries of the heart, brain and other organs in the body. This increases your risk for blockages that could result in a heart attack or stroke.
- Autonomic neuropathy (nerve damage). Diabetes can cause nerve damage to your organs. This can impact many internal functions of the body including regulating blood pressure and digestion.
- Increased oxidative stress levels. Oxidative stress creates an imbalance in the body between free radicals (unstable atoms found in environmental air pollution, chemicals, cigarettes, fried foods and alcohol) and antioxidants (molecules that occur naturally and help protect the body from free-radical damage). When this imbalance occurs, it makes it easier for the body to absorb free radicals, which can increase your risk of developing severe health conditions, including heart disease.
Q: What other health conditions can diabetes put you at risk for?
Dr. Rudraiah: The impact diabetes has on blood vessels throughout your body can increase your risk for many health conditions including:
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart attack
- Cerebrovascular diseases, or conditions that impact blood flow to the brain including stroke and aneurysms
- High blood pressure
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Diseases of the eyes or retinas
Q: What are some risk factors for developing heart disease?
Dr. Rudraiah: There are some risk factors that you have control over – like your weight, how much you exercise, smoking and drinking habits, etc. However, there are some heart disease risk factors that you can’t control such as your age or your family’s medical history.
Q: When should you talk to your doctor about your risk of heart disease?
Dr. Rudraiah: The sooner, the better. When you are first diagnosed with diabetes, you should also begin conversations with your doctor about your risk for cardiovascular disease. Your doctor might recommend tests to evaluate your risk at that point. It is possible that the effects of unmanaged diabetes have already put you at an increased risk for heart disease.
Q: If you have diabetes, what can you do to reduce your risk of heart disease?
- Control your blood sugar levels
- Keep your cholesterol levels in check
- Quit smoking
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a well-rounded diet (think whole grains, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, lean proteins)
- Maintain a healthy weight
Most importantly, make sure you are keeping regularly scheduled appointments with your doctor. These visits can be used to make sure you are successfully managing your diabetes and to monitor your ongoing risk for heart disease.
Unfortunately, your risk for heart disease will never completely go away. But managing lifestyle factors that are within your control can continue to lower your risk.
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Dr. Lalitha Rudraiah is a cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Sterling Heights.