It's no secret that type 2 diabetes is a common health condition that affects millions of people in the U.S . What you may not realize, however, is that while type 2 diabetes can be easily managed, it can also lead to other serious health complications, including heart disease, if not kept under control.
While diabetes and heart disease affect your body differently, they have a lot in common, including being linked to obesity, high blood pressure, poor dietary choices, and physical inactivity. The good news is that both type 2 diabetes and heart disease are preventable in most cases.
Here's what you should know about the connection between type 2 diabetes and heart disease before consulting your healthcare provider.
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Type 2 diabetes is a serious health condition that affects as many as 90-95% of the 37 million¹ diabetics in America. It occurs when there is too much blood glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream. Blood glucose comes from the food you eat and is used by your cells for energy with the help of a hormone produced by your pancreas, known as insulin.
When you have type 2 diabetes, your body either doesn't produce an adequate amount of insulin or doesn't use it as it should. As a result, the glucose remains in your blood and isn't used by your cells. Over time, high blood sugar levels can lead to other serious health complications, including heart disease, kidney disease, and vision problems.
Type 2 diabetes can affect anyone, but it's more likely to occur in people who are over the age of 45, have a family history of diabetes, or are overweight.
The symptoms of type 2 diabetes can vary from person to person. While one person may notice several diabetes signs, you may not experience any at all.
Common symptoms of type 2 diabetes include:
Frequent urination, particularly during the night
Tingling or numbness in your hands or feet
Having more infections than usual
Having sores that heal slower than usual
If you notice one or more of these symptoms, don't delay scheduling an appointment with your healthcare provider. Seeking professional medical assistance as quickly as possible can help you receive an accurate diagnosis and find a treatment plan that will alleviate your diabetes symptoms and, most importantly, prevent the disease from getting worse or leading to other health concerns.
When a person develops type 2 diabetes, the cells in the body become insulin-resistant, which means they don't take in as much glucose as they should. In addition, the pancreas is unable to produce an adequate amount of insulin to keep blood sugar levels under control.
While no one knows exactly why type 2 diabetes occurs in some people and doesn't in others, there are risk factors that could increase your chances of developing the disease.
Type 2 diabetes risk factors include:
Being overweight or obese
Carrying your weight around your belly rather than your thighs and hips
Being physically inactive
Having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes
Having low levels of "good" cholesterol and high levels of "bad" cholesterol
Being diagnosed with gestational diabetes
Being over the age of 45
Type 2 diabetes will not get better or go away on its own. On the contrary, if left undiagnosed, it will likely get worse and lead to other serious health complications, including heart problems, kidney problems, foot problems, and vision problems.
Your healthcare provider can diagnose you with type 2 diabetes by performing a physical exam, reviewing your symptoms and medical history, and using one or more tests. Tests that are commonly used to diagnose type 2 diabetes include:
A1C: This blood test does not require any previous fasting and can provide your average blood sugar level from the past three months. If your A1C level is greater than or equal to 6.5%, you may be diagnosed with diabetes.
Fasting Plasma Glucose (FPG): This test checks your blood sugar level after you've been fasting or haven't had anything to eat and drink (besides water) for at least eight hours before having your blood drawn. If your blood sugar level is greater than or equal to 126 mg/dl, you may be diagnosed with diabetes.
Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (OGTT): This test checks your blood sugar level after you've fasted for eight hours and then again two hours later after you've consumed a sweet drink. If your blood sugar is greater than or equal to 200 mg/dl after the two-hour test, you may be diagnosed with diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes affects every person differently. Because of this, it's not uncommon for two individuals who both have type 2 diabetes to have treatment plans that are completely unique.
If you're diagnosed with diabetes, your healthcare provider can create an individualized treatment plan that is catered to your particular condition, medical history, current medications, and overall lifestyle.
Some ways type 2 diabetes is treated include:
Eating a healthy diet: Type 2 diabetics should typically aim to eat smaller portions, foods that are high in fiber and low in refined sugars and fats, and lower calories. If you're unsure how to change your poor eating habits or are having difficulty sticking to a healthy diet, consider seeking help from a professional dietitian.
Incorporating exercise into your regular routine: Staying physically active can help you lose excess weight, maintain a healthy weight, and regulate your blood sugar levels. Adults with diabetes should aim to exercise moderately for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week. Likewise, it's important to avoid long periods of inactivity by standing up to walk around or performing light exercises every 30 minutes.
Taking medications: Your healthcare provider may prescribe medications to help manage your type 2 diabetes.
Insulin therapy: Depending on your condition, you may be prescribed short-acting, which might be used when you eat, or long-acting insulin, which could keep your blood sugar stable all day or night. Insulin is typically injected, but can also be inhaled or administered through a pump.
Monitoring your blood sugar: Your healthcare provider will advise you on how, when, and how often to check your blood sugar levels. You may need a blood glucose meter that uses a drop of your blood to measure your blood sugar levels or a continuous glucose monitoring system that checks your blood sugar levels every few minutes from a sensor that's placed under your skin.
Heart disease is a term that refers to a variety of different heart conditions, including:
Heart failure: when your heart can't pump your blood throughout your body as it should
Heart valve disease: when the valves in your heart become damaged, resulting in insufficient blood flow
Congenital heart disease: present at birth and can involve changes to the heart structure that take place during development
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD), also known as coronary heart disease or ischemic heart disease, is the most common type of heart disease in America. It occurs when plaque builds up on the interior walls of the arteries that bring blood to your heart and other organs of your body.
This plaque is caused by cholesterol that travels through your bloodstream. When your cholesterol is high, and plaque builds up, the insides of your arteries can become narrow, making it difficult for blood to flow freely or blocking blood from flowing altogether.
When this occurs, it's known as atherosclerosis.
In many cases, heart disease can form and progress without any warning symptoms. Because of this, people typically aren't diagnosed with heart disease until they experience symptoms of other heart conditions, such as a heart attack, heart failure, or arrhythmia.
In these cases, your symptoms may include:
Heart attack: pain or discomfort in your chest, upper back, and/or neck, heartburn, indigestion, extreme fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, and/or vomiting
Heart failure: shortness of breath, fatigue, and/or swelling of your feet, legs, ankles, abdomen, and/or the veins in your neck
Arrhythmia: irregular heartbeat or palpitations
Other symptoms of heart disease include:
Pain in one or both of your arms
Weakness or numbness in your legs
Fainting or almost fainting
Heart disease can be caused by various lifestyle factors and other health conditions. The good news is that you can reduce your chance of experiencing heart disease by being aware of your risks and making the necessary lifestyle changes to improve your cardiovascular health.
Some risks that enhance your likelihood of developing heart disease include:
Eating an unhealthy diet
Not getting enough exercise
Being overweight or obese
Drinking too much alcohol
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, or type 2 diabetes
Poor mental health, such as depression
Individuals who have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are almost twice as likely² to experience heart disease or a stroke than people without the condition. Likewise, type 2 diabetics typically develop heart disease earlier in life than those without diabetes.
When your blood sugar levels stay high for an extended period of time, it can take a toll on your heart. Along with damaging the nerves that control your heart, type 2 diabetes can also damage the blood vessels surrounding it.
Furthermore, type 2 diabetes can increase your risk of developing other conditions that make you more likely to experience heart disease. These include:
High blood pressure (hypertension)
High levels of "bad" cholesterol (LDL)
It's important to note that you could have high blood pressure, high LDL levels, and/or high triglycerides and not even know it. None of these conditions present noticeable symptoms.
For this reason, it's important to monitor these levels by scheduling regular check-ups with your healthcare provider. They can determine if your heart is healthy by checking your blood pressure and performing simple blood tests.
While heart disease can affect anyone, regardless of whether they have type 2 diabetes or not, certain risk factors may increase your chances of developing heart disease.
Along with high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, these are additional risk factors that could make you more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke:
Chronic kidney disease
If you experience one or more symptoms of heart disease, your healthcare provider may recommend performing a series of tests to determine if you have heart disease or if something else is contributing to your symptoms.
This may include reviewing your medical history, including whether your parents or siblings have heart problems. If they do, you are more likely to have one yourself.
Likewise, your healthcare provider will take into consideration any additional symptoms you're experiencing as well as any other health conditions you may have, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and/or high cholesterol.
After reviewing your medical history, they will likely do some tests to see how well your heart is functioning. These could include:
Stress test (walking on a treadmill or injecting medicine into your bloodstream using an IV to mimic the stress of walking)
If you are diagnosed with heart disease, your healthcare provider will provide a personalized treatment plan to manage your condition, such as:
Making changes to your lifestyle: These could include not smoking, eating a balanced diet that is low in fat and sodium, getting at least half an hour of moderate exercise at least five days each week, reducing stress, and drinking alcohol in moderation.
Taking prescription medications: If making healthy lifestyle changes alone isn't enough to keep your heart in good condition, your healthcare provider may prescribe medications to help.
Surgery or other medical procedures: In some cases, lifestyle changes and medications aren't enough to combat heart disease. Therefore, your healthcare provider may recommend other cardiovascular procedures or surgery depending on the condition of your heart.
While most people with type 2 diabetes will eventually develop heart disease, there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of it occurring. Here are some proactive lifestyle changes that can improve your heart health with type 2 diabetes:
Incorporate regular exercise into your daily routine
If your cholesterol is high, talk to your healthcare provider about how to lower it
Keep your blood pressure under control
Work closely with your healthcare provider to maintain your A1C goals
The best way to prevent type 2 diabetes and heart disease is to make healthy lifestyle changes before the conditions develop. If you do notice signs of either condition, it's important to schedule a check-up with your healthcare provider right away.
This is especially true if you are at risk of developing either disease due to your weight, family history, or any other risk factor.
Being diagnosed early is the key to getting your condition under control and preventing other complications from developing, including heart attack or stroke.
If you are diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease, be sure to work closely with your healthcare team to find a treatment plan that works to keep your heart healthy and blood sugar levels under control.
Type 2 diabetes and heart disease are very serious but largely preventable. Not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet can all play a big role in helping you prevent both diabetes and heart disease.
If you are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, you're nearly twice as likely to eventually develop heart disease as well. Because of this, it's important to make the necessary lifestyle changes to keep your blood sugar levels under control, including monitoring your blood sugar, taking your medications, and losing weight.
Working closely with your healthcare provider is the best way to treat, manage, and prevent type 2 diabetes and heart disease.