January 17, 2024

How diabetes can affect your heart

People with diabetes are more likely to have heart disease.

Monitoring and controlling blood sugar levels can help reduce diabetes’ effects on the heart.

People with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke than people who don’t have diabetes. And for people with diabetes, these problems can surface at a younger age.

Since 2002, the number of adults in the U.S. diagnosed with diabetes has more than doubled. About 38 million people have diabetes, and an additional 97 million people have prediabetes, meaning they are on the verge of getting it.

Leila Ganjehei, MD, a cardiologist for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, explains how diabetes can damage the heart and what people can do about it.

portrait of Leila Ganjehei

How does diabetes affect heart health?

People with diabetes have too much sugar in their blood. High blood sugar can damage the blood vessels that feed the heart, and the nerves that control the heart.

People who have diabetes are also at increased risk for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Both conditions raise the risk of heart disease. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are all aspects of metabolic syndrome and occur together because they share similar risk factors and common causes. In many ways, diabetes also damages the cardiovascular system and raises cholesterol.

Increased cholesterol can raise the risk of heart attack or stroke. Cholesterol is a form of fat found in blood vessels. Cholesterol can form plaque on damaged artery walls and contribute to artery hardening.

People with diabetes, especially those with uncontrolled diabetes, are also more likely to have heart failure.

With heart failure, the heart can’t pump blood well. This can cause a person’s legs to swell. It can also cause fluid to collect in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

Heart failure is likely to worsen over time. Catching and treating it early can help relieve symptoms and stop it or delay it from worsening.

How can people with diabetes minimize its effects on the heart?

First, it’s important to catch diabetes early. Lifestyle changes and medications can help control blood sugar levels.

Your doctor can also help you control risk factors, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Can the damage caused by diabetes be corrected or reversed?

By controlling blood sugar levels, the harmful changes can be stopped. Some new diabetes medications can partially reverse heart damage caused by diabetes and improve heart health.

What lifestyle changes can help with diabetes and heart health?

Simple lifestyle changes that protect your heart can also help with diabetes. It’s important to:

  • Eat healthy food
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Control stress
  • Stop smoking
  • Take medications as prescribed

Learn more about heart health and cardiac care at Kaiser Permanente.