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updated May 04, 2007

Have diabetes? Stop cardiovascular disease in its tracks

  • Diabetes and cardiovascular disease go hand in hand. Find out how to reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
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Filed under: Diabetes

( When you have diabetes, monitoring your blood sugar is an important part of your treatment plan. But there's more. You also need to pay close attention to what's happening to your heart and blood vessels.

That's because cardiovascular disease is the most common — and most serious — complication of diabetes. In fact, heart disease and stroke cause about 65 percent of all diabetes-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thankfully, there's plenty you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Start by understanding the link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

How diabetes affects your heart and blood vessels

Diabetes can damage your blood vessels, including the arteries that supply blood to your heart and brain. This damage makes it easier for fatty deposits (plaques) to form in the arteries. The buildup of arterial plaques, a condition called atherosclerosis, can choke off blood supply and drive up your blood pressure. The result may be a heart attack or stroke.

And the increased risk of heart attack and stroke isn't the only concern. Inadequate blood flow to the heart often speaks loud and clear, causing chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, jaw or arm pain, nausea, sweating or fatigue — symptoms that tell you something's wrong. If you have diabetes, however, you may not have such clues. You can have a "silent" heart attack and not know it.

How to reduce the risk

If you have diabetes, you're two to four times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than you'd be if you didn't have diabetes. But you're not destined to face a heart attack or stroke. With the help of your health care team, you can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

  • Manage your blood sugar. Keeping your blood sugar level within your target range can prevent or delay blood vessel damage. In addition to daily blood sugar monitoring, your doctor may recommend regular glycated hemoglobin (A1C) testing to gauge your average blood sugar control for the past two to three months.

    Your goal: An A1C level of 7 percent or less.

  • Keep your blood pressure in check. High blood pressure (hypertension) can lead to various cardiovascular complications for anyone. But when you have diabetes, high blood pressure can increase the severity of those complications and hasten their development.

    Your goal: Blood pressure below 130/80 millimeters of mercury.

  • Control cholesterol and triglycerides. Unhealthy levels of blood fats — cholesterol and triglycerides — also can cause cardiovascular disease in anyone. But like high blood pressure, the damage is usually worse and more rapid when you have diabetes.

    Your goals: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad," cholesterol below 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) — perhaps as low as 70 mg/dL if you have other heart disease risk factors or take cholesterol-lowering medication; high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol at least 40 mg/dL — preferably up to 60 mg/dL or even higher; triglycerides below 150 mg/dL.

  • Make healthy lifestyle changes. To manage diabetes and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, eat healthy foods and get regular physical activity. Lose excess weight. If you smoke, quit. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so only in moderation.
  • Consider medication. If you have difficulty making healthy lifestyle changes, or reaching your blood sugar, blood pressure and blood fat goals, you may need medication or other changes in your treatment plan.
Make the connection, make a difference

Understanding the strong link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease is an important step in preventing life-threatening complications. So talk to your health care team about your risk factors and how you can change them. Schedule periodic checkups to make sure you're meeting your goals, and any problems are detected — and treated — early.

©1998-2008 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Terms of use.

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