When you have diabetes, you're more at risk of heart disease. This is also called cardiovascular disease (CVD) or coronary disease, and can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Cardiovascular disease affects your circulation too. And poor circulation makes other diabetes complications worse – like problems with your eyes and feet.
That’s why it’s even more important to take good care of your heart when you have diabetes. We’re here to explain why diabetes increases your risk of heart problems, and how you can reduce this risk.
Why does diabetes increase your risk of heart disease?
If you have high blood sugar levels for a period of time, even slightly high, your blood vessels can start to get damaged and this can lead to serious heart complications.
This is because your body can't use all of this sugar properly, so more of it sticks to your red blood cells and builds up in your blood. This build-up can block and damage the vessels carrying blood to and from your heart, starving the heart of oxygen and nutrients.
So keeping as close as possible to your target HbA1c level will help protect your blood vessels and in turn your heart. Even mildly raised blood sugar levels can, over time, put you more at risk.
Be in the know about your HbA1c and how to lower it if it's too high.
Managing your diabetes and your heart
We've talked about the link between high blood sugar levels and your heart health. But it's not all down to blood sugars. Blood vessels are also damaged by high cholesterol (blood fats) and high blood pressure.
So you can help prevent damage to your blood vessels by looking after your:
- blood sugar levels
- blood pressure
- cholesterol (blood fats)
Getting your HbA1c, cholesterol and blood pressure checked at least once a year are part of the checks you should have if you have diabetes. These might be delayed or happen differently at the moment because of the coronavirus pandemic. Speak to your healthcare team if you are not sure how soon you need these tests again.
By managing these three things, you'll be helping to manage your diabetes and protecting yourself against heart complications. But there are lots of other things you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease.
"It’s all very well having your bloods taken but go back and ask about them – what do the results mean? I make sure I get all my checks and by taking that control myself, I'm reducing my risk of developing these complications."
Read Sarah's story to find out what she's doing to reduce her risk of developing complications
Diabetes and heart attack
Here we’ll explain what can happen in your body to cause these heart complications.
Let’s start with the major blood vessels in your body, these are your:
- arteries – they carry blood away from your heart
- veins – they carry blood back to your heart.
If these arteries and veins get damaged, it can be harder for blood to flow around the body and get to the areas it’s needed.
If your cholesterol is too high, then the extra fat in your blood sticks to the walls of your blood vessels. Over time, this fat hardens and is known as plaque. Hard plaque can block up the blood vessels, which makes the space narrower and leaves less room for blood to flow.
This is called arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis and is the most common cause of a heart attack.
In the narrower space, blood flow slows down and causes some of the blood cells to group together and clot. If a blood clot breaks away, it will travel through your arteries and veins until it reaches a section too narrow to pass through, making it partially or completely blocked.
This can starve the heart of oxygen and nutrients and this is what causes a heart attack.
Not only does the blood struggle to flow through the blood vessels, but over time atherosclerosis makes the walls of your blood vessels more rigid and less elastic. This can lead to high blood pressure (also called hypertension) or make high blood pressure worse.
High blood pressure puts extra strain on your blood vessels too. That’s on top of the strain from high cholesterol and high blood sugar.
Narrowing of the blood vessels can affect other parts of the body too, like your arms or legs. It’s called peripheral vascular disease (PVD) and if left untreated, can also lead to amputation. Find out more about reducing your risk of serious foot problems.
The good news is, you can reduce your risk of having a heart attack or developing heart disease.
- Get your HbA1c, blood pressure and blood cholesterol (blood fats) measured at least once a year as part of your annual diabetes review – make sure you get advice and support from your healthcare team to keep them within your target range. Your care might look a bit different due to the coronavirus pandemic.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking makes it harder for blood to flow around your body, especially to your heart. If you need help stopping, ask your healthcare team for more help or check out our information to help you quit.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet to protect your heart – reducing how much saturated fat you have is a good place to start.
- Be physically active and do some regular exercise.
- If you are living with obesity or overweight, get support to help you lose some weight. Even losing a small amount can make a real difference. Being a healthy weight range reduces the strain on your heart.
- Take your medication as prescribed. Some medicines help to protect your heart by reducing high blood pressure or blood fats and you may take these even if you don’t have any blood pressure problems or high blood fats.
And if you have any chest pain or pain when walking – call 999 straight away. These could be signs of a heart attack.
We've got more information about reducing your risk of a stroke too – it's all very similar advice as they're closely linked.
Our research and heart disease
We know people with diabetes are more at risk of developing heart problems, so we need to find ways to reduce this risk. We're funding research on heart disease and if it's successful, this research could open doors to developing new drugs that reduce plaque build-up in blood vessels and protect people with diabetes against this serious complication.
Find out more about our research into heart disease and how to get involved in our ground-breaking research projects.