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Diabetes and stroke

When you have diabetes, you're more at risk of cardiovascular disease, which can lead to a stroke.

A stroke is when blood can't get to your brain and it's starved of vital oxygen and nutrients. This can happen if your blood vessels are damaged or blocked and we're here to explain why having diabetes means you're more at risk of this happening.

But the good news is, you can reduce this risk and we'll take you through this too.

Link between diabetes and stroke

Let's start with your blood vessels. You have many miles of blood vessels inside your body and they carry blood cells to and from your heart. If you have too much glucose (sugar) in your blood for a period of time, your blood vessels can start to get damaged.

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 around your body, starving the brain of oxygen and nutrients.

So keeping as close as possible to your target HbA1c level will help protect your blood vessels. 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

We've talked about the link between high blood sugar levels and risk of stroke. 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 is part of your 15 Healthcare Essentials and your legal right. If you're not getting these, give us a call and we'll help you get the care you're entitled to when you have diabetes.

By managing these three things, you'll be helping to manage your diabetes and protecting yourself against heart complications and stroke. But there are lots of other things you can do to reduce your risk.

What causes a stroke?

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, like your brain.

High cholesterol

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.

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 will starve the brain of oxygen and nutrients and this is what causes a stroke.

High blood pressure

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. The more stress your blood vessels are under, the harder it is to push blood around the important areas of your body. This means they're seriously at risk.

Reducing your risk of a stroke

Signs of a stroke are things like weakness in your face or arm, or slurred speech. If you notice any of these signs, call 999 straight away.

But the good news is, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of this happening. Here's how:

  • 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.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking makes it harder for blood to flow around the vital parts of your body. Check out our information to help you quit.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet – start by cutting down on salt.
  • Be physically active.
  • If you’re overweight, try to get down to a healthy weight. Keeping to a healthy weight reduces the strain on your body.
  • Take your medication as prescribed. Some medicines help to protect your body by reducing high blood pressure and you may take these even if you don’t have any blood pressure problems.

We've got more information about reducing your risk of having a heart attack too – it's all very similar advice as they're closely linked.

Our research on diabetes and strokes

We're funding research to help us understand how blood vessel damage leads to serious complications, like sight loss and stroke, in people with diabetes.

Find out more about our research and how to support any of our ground-breaking research projects.

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