Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a complication and cause of premature death among people with diabetes. Unfortunately, many people with diabetes do not understand the risk of cardiovascular disease or what they can do to help prevent it.

Diabetes is a disorder in which the body does not make insulin, does not make enough insulin, or does not properly use the insulin it makes (insulin resistance). Insulin helps metabolize glucose, the body's primary source of energy. Without insulin, glucose from food cannot enter cells. Glucose builds up in the blood and body tissues become starved for energy. Over time, persistent high blood glucose levels can damage the arteries, kidneys, eyes, nerves, and other tissues.

Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Adults with diabetes are 2-4 times more likely to have CVD than people without diabetes. In people with diabetes, high blood glucose levels are associated with the development of atherosclerosis. This is a condition in which fatty deposits called plaque damage the lining of the arteries, causing them to narrow and harden. Atherosclerosis, a main cause of CVD, interferes with blood flow—ultimately leading to several manifestations of CVD including:

Why Is There a Risk?

People with type 2 diabetes often have an increased risk of CVD for the following reasons:

  • Their platelets have an added tendency to clump together leading to clotting problems and poor blood flow.
  • They have higher rates of hypertension and obesity.
  • They tend to have lipid disorders, particularly increased LDL or “bad” cholesterol, low levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol, and increased levels of triglycerides.

Who Are the High-risk Groups?

Those with the highest risk for diabetes and its CVD complications include:

  • People with a family history of diabetes
  • Overweight and obese people, especially extra weight around the waist
  • Older people
  • Special populations
    • African Americans
    • Hispanic/Latino Americans
    • Native Americans
    • Asian Americans
    • Pacific Islanders
  • People with diabetes who smoke double their risk of CVD.

Management of Diabetes

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the management of three critical indicators is essential for reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes in people with diabetes. It's as easy as ABC:

  • A—Blood glucose is measured with the hemoglobin A1C test. The recommended goal for this test is a reading of less than 7%.
  • B—Blood pressure should be less than 140/80 mm Hg.
  • C—LDL cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL. Other cholesterol goals include:
    • Triglycerides—should be under 150 mg/dL
    • For men, HDL (good) cholesterol should be above 40 mg/dL, and for women it should be over 50 mg/dL

Individual goals may vary some. Talk to your doctor about which goals are right for you.

How Do You Lower the Risk?

People with diabetes can lower their risk of CVD with therapeutic lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation, weight management, and regular exercise. Drug therapy is also available to control some risk factors for CVD and prevent or treat the complications of diabetes.

People with diabetes can take the following steps to help reduce their risk of CVD:

  • Get involved in treatment decisions with your healthcare team
  • Be actively involved in the management of your disease
  • Set lifestyle goals
  • Become well-educated about diabetes and CVD
  • Eat a healthy diet that’s low in saturated fat and cholesterol and low in sodium
  • Eat more fiber
  • Get at least 30-60 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week
  • Diligently control your blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure with and without medications
  • Ask about aspirin therapy for CVD prevention
  • If you smoke, quit. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor