Why does having diabetes increase my risk of heart disease and stroke?

If you have diabetes, your odds of having an ischemic stroke are several times greater than those of people without the disease. Diabetes increases the tendency of the blood to form clots, which can dam up the arteries. High blood sugar, the hallmark of diabetes, promotes the development of peripheral artery disease, which can cause blockages in the arteries leading to the brain.

Keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol under control can reduce your stroke risk if you have diabetes. Keeping glucose levels within normal limits can lower the risk of stroke in people with type 1 diabetes. It is unclear whether glucose control also reduces the risk of stroke in people with type 2 diabetes, but it can help prevent damage to the small blood vessels in people with this form of diabetes who have had an ischemic stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA).

People with diabetes are at least twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke. They're also more likely to have a heart attack or stroke at an earlier age. To reduce your risk, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol with regular exercise and a healthy low-fat, low-salt diet that includes more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Quit smoking. And do your best to lose at leasat 5 to 10 percent of your body weight. If you still need help, talk to your doctor about medication for high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol.

Having diabetes means that you're likely to have certain conditions, or risk factors, that increase your chances for having heart disease or a stroke. These conditions are:

  • being overweight or obese
  • having high blood pressure
  • having abnormal blood fat (cholesterol) levels
  • having protein in the urine
  • having a family history of heart disease

You can't change your family history, but taking care of your diabetes and the conditions that come with it can lower your chances of having a heart attack or a stroke. You can do this by keeping your ABCs of diabetes on target. Listed below are the ABC targets set by the American Diabetes Association (ADA) for most people with diabetes. The closer your numbers are to the targets, the better your chances of delaying or preventing a heart attack or a stroke. Write down your most recent results and your targets. If you're unsure of your results or your targets, talk with your health care team.

  • A is for A1C or estimated average glucose. It's the blood glucose (sugar) check "with a memory." It tells you your average blood glucose for the past 2 to 3 months.
  • B is for blood pressure. Your blood pressure numbers tell you the force of blood inside your vessels. When your blood pressure is high, your heart has to work harder than it should.
  • C is for cholesterol. Your cholesterol numbers tell you the amount of fat in your blood. Some kinds, like high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, help protect your heart. Others, like low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, can clog your blood vessels and lead to heart disease. Triglycerides are another kind of blood fat that raises your risk for a heart attack or a stroke.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.