Could diabetes define the future of heart disease?

Dr. Joseph Hill explains how diabetes affects the heart.

Diabetes, a chronic disease characterized by high blood glucose levels, has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Historically, type 2 diabetes has been diagnosed primarily in middle-aged adults. Today, however, children and teenagers are developing type 2 diabetes at an alarming rate. At the current pace, scientists estimate that by 2050 one in three Americans could be afflicted with the disease.

This is of great concern to me and other cardiologists because adults with diabetes are at least twice as likely as someone who does not have diabetes to have heart disease or a stroke. Heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 causes of death among people with type 2 diabetes.

How diabetes attacks the heart

People with diabetes, particularly type 2, often have other conditions that increase their risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Diabetes also puts additional stress on the heart. Specifically, diabetes attacks the heart from three different angles:

  • People with diabetes are prone to atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in their arteries. This means the heart can be deprived of oxygen and nutrients.
  • People with diabetes are prone to high blood pressure.
  • Certain hormones are elevated in people with diabetes, and these can be toxic to the heart.

Taken together, these factors have a profoundly negative impact on the tissue of the heart.

UT Southwestern is a world leader in the research to understand the connections between diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. We’ve learned a lot in recent years, but there is still much to discover about the factors contributing to this epidemic.

The good news

There is some good news – diabetes is treatable. Some people can control their blood sugar levels simply by adjusting their lifestyle. Here are a few tips that can delay or possibly prevent diabetes:

  • Maintain a healthy weight: If you are overweight, losing even a few extra pounds can help.
  • Eat healthy foods: Incorporate plenty of fruits and vegetables into your meals.
  • Exercise: Exercise is as powerful a medicine as we have, and it has no side effects except what it might do to your knees and ankles.

There are some risk factors for diabetes that people can’t control, such as family history and race. If the lifestyle adjustments listed above aren’t enough, medications are available.

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