Damage to the heart and blood vessels is collectively known as cardiovascular disease and people with diabetes have a higher chance of developing it. The term cardiovascular disease (CVD) includes heart disease, stroke and all other diseases of the heart and circulation.
Your major blood vessels consist of arteries which carry blood away from your heart, and veins which return it. Damage to these vessels is referred to as macrovascular disease.
Capillaries are the tiny vessels where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place. When damage occurs to these vessels it’s referred to as microvascular disease.
When fatty materials such as cholesterol form deposits on the walls of the vessels (known as plaque), furring up the artery and reducing the space for blood to flow, this is described as arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis. If the plaque ruptures the artery walls, blood cells (called platelets) try to repair the damage, but this will cause a clot to form. Over time, the walls of the blood vessels lose their elasticity. This can contribute to the development of high blood pressure or hypertension, which can cause more damage to the blood vessels.
The force of the blood being pumped from the heart can make the clot break away from the artery wall and travel through the system until it reaches a section too narrow to pass through. If this happens the narrow section will become partially or completely blocked.
Blockage of an artery leads to the part of the body it supplies being starved of the oxygen and nutrients it needs. This is the cause of heart attack or strokes (affecting the brain).
Narrowing of the blood vessels can affect other parts of the body, such as the arms or legs. This is called peripheral vascular disease (PVD). PVD may produce intermittent claudication (pain in the calf muscle). If left untreated, amputation of the limb may eventually be necessary.
What causes cardiovascular disease?
Blood vessels are damaged by high blood glucose levels, high blood pressure, smoking or high levels of cholesterol. So, it is important for people with diabetes to manage these levels by making lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, taking part in regular activity, reducing weight if you are overweight and stopping smoking.
Steps you can take to help prevent CVD
- If you smoke, ask for help to stop.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Be more physically active.
- If you are overweight, try to get down to a healthy weight. Any weight loss will be of benefit.
- Take your medication as prescribed.
- Get your blood glucose levels, blood pressure and blood cholesterol checked at least once a year and aim to keep to the target agreed with your healthcare team.
- If you have any chest pain, intermittent pain when walking, impotence or signs of a stroke, such as facial or arm weakness or slurred speech, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.