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Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes

You've probably heard that people with diabetes are at risk for multiple health complications, including cardiovascular disease. As it turns out, cardiovascular disease is especially common among people with diabetes: Most people with type 2 diabetes will eventually develop cardiovascular disease. Although most people have heard of cardiovascular disease, few understand exactly what it involves. Healthcare providers use the term "cardiovascular disease" to describe many conditions that affect blood circulation in the body:

  • Heart disease happens when blood circulating to the heart muscle is slowed or stopped because of a blocked artery. Heart disease can result in chest pain, a heart attack, or even sudden death.

  • Heart failure happens when the heart loses its ability to pump blood as it should. Heart failure can be caused by a number of factors. These include damage to the heart or blocked arteries and high blood pressure.

  • Stroke happens when blood flow to the brain is blocked. This is the most common type often because of a blood clot or blockages within arteries.

  • Peripheral arterial disease consists of blockages in the arteries to the legs and feet. 

What causes cardiovascular disease?

Most people think of obesity when they think of cardiovascular disease, but another strong risk factor is age. Your risk of developing cardiovascular disease goes up at age 40, but is highest after age 70. People with diabetes are 2 to 4 times more likely than others to develop cardiovascular disease. Because this risk is so high, cardiovascular disease remains the most common cause of death in people with diabetes. Not getting enough exercise also puts you at risk for developing cardiovascular disease.

Warning signs

Seek medical attention if:

  • You have chest discomfort when you walk or exercise.

  • You have chest pain along with tiredness (fatigue) or shortness of breath.

  • Your resting heart rate is usually faster than 100 beats per minute.

  • You are a young man with erectile dysfunction..

Women may have stomach upset, and older adults may have confusion or fainting (syncope). These are all warning signs of a possible heart attack. Symptoms are not the same for everyone.

How is cardiovascular disease found?

If your healthcare providers suspect cardiovascular disease, they will first look to your family health history for more information. Did your mother, father, brothers, or sisters have heart trouble? Your risk of developing cardiovascular disease is higher if you have family members with the disease. Other risk factors include bad cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes. Healthcare providers use a variety of tests to detect cardiovascular disease. A routine blood test can show whether you have high levels of c-reactive protein. This is a marker that you’re at higher risk. An electrocardiogram (ECG) will show whether your heart’s electrical activity is normal. If it's not, a stress test on a treadmill, for example, will give more information that may lead to diagnosis. If you are not able to walk on a treadmill, your healthcare provider may "stress" your heart by injecting medicine through an IV. This medicine can cause the heart to beat fast and imitate the stress of exercise. Some people will be asked to have an echocardiogram. This makes pictures of the heart to show how well the muscles of the heart can squeeze and pump blood.

Protect your heart!

If your risk of developing cardiovascular disease is high, now is the time for action. You can reduce your risk, starting today, by making the following lifestyle changes. Ask your healthcare provider to help you:

  • Quit smoking

  • Lose weight

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet

  • Exercise

  • Control your blood pressure

  • Improve your cholesterol

  • Find out if using aspirin therapy would help you

  • Set an appropriate HbA1C goal if you have diabetes or are at risk for diabetes. Work with your healthcare provider to set that goal.

Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Gandelman, Glenn, MD, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Snyder, Mandy, APRN
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2021
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