Midsection of female doctor examining sugar level of patient with glucometer in pharmacy

Your diabetes, your heart

With healthy habits and education, diabetes and heart health can be managed
November 10, 2021

More than 34 million Americans have type 2 diabetes, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is about 1 in 10 people. Although type 2 diabetes more often develops in people over 45 years of age, more and more children, teens and young adults are developing it.

With type 2 diabetes, the body’s cells don’t respond to insulin normally, causing the pancreas to make more insulin to get cells to respond. As a result, blood sugar rises and damages the body, setting the stage for other health problems, including vision loss, kidney disease and heart disease.

Those with type 2 diabetes are at greater risk for developing cardiovascular disease than those not living with diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, cardiovascular disease—where heart and blood vessels are negatively impacted—is the number one cause of death for those living with type 2 diabetes. In addition, those with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke than those not living with diabetes.

Despite the risks and complications, with proper diabetes self-management and education, those living with diabetes can lower their risk for cardiovascular disease.

How diabetes affects the heart

“Diabetes is more than just having high blood sugar. It’s a blood vessel disease that causes damage to the major organs in the body if diabetes is not managed over a lifetime. Diabetes requires consistent daily, management and lifestyle change,” said Wendy Creighton, RN, BSN, with the Texas A&M Health Center for Population Health and Aging.

There are several types of cardiovascular diseases that can affect those living with type 2 diabetes, including atherosclerosis, heart failure and arrhythmias. Atherosclerosis occurs when fatty plaque builds up in the blood vessels and causes them to stiffen, preventing normal blood flow of oxygen and nutrients. Heart failure occurs when the heart’s muscles become too weak to pump blood properly to all areas of the body. Arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats, occur when damage to the heart disrupts the electrical messages to keep the heart beating.

Cardiovascular disease can present itself as several symptoms like shortness of breath and fatigue; chest, throat, back, leg, neck, jaw, upper abdomen and arm pain; as well as numbness in the arms or legs.

Those living with type 2 diabetes can prevent cardiovascular disease complications by staying on top of their diabetes and heart health.

“The good news is with education, support and practice you can make small changes over time that will have a large impact over time,” Creighton said. “You don’t have to be perfect at managing your diabetes, you just have start right where you are now and keep pressing forward! When you get off track, be kind to yourself, re-evaluate and hop back on again! Let your health care provider, friends and family know your plan for success so they can support you along the journey.”

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) has several recommendations for keeping an eye on your heart health:

  • Keep blood sugar in range for as long as possible
  • Know your numbers (A1c, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol)
  • Manage weight through diet and exercise
  • Manage stress
  • Get enough sleep
  • Take insulin and medication as prescribed
  • Attend doctor visits and seek support from medical professionals
  • Seek support and help from family and friends
  • Attend diabetes education classes

Education and resources for diabetes management

To bring attention to diabetes prevention, treatments and diabetes itself, November has been named National Diabetes Month. During the month communities and outreach organizations come together to share education and resources about diabetes prevention.

The Center for Population Health and Aging is one such organization that is committed to diabetes education through research studies and community education.

The center offers Your Diabetes, Your Heart on the center’s online education platform Enlighten Together Training (cphatraining.com). This free 30-minute online diabetes management course allows users to learn about heart health and diabetes. In addition, it gives users access to the American Diabetes Association’s Know your Diabetes by Heart free resources: ask the Experts Q&A Series, healthy recipes and monthly newsletter.

“The Your Diabetes, Your Heart is a joint effort with ADA to promote heart health among people with diabetes,” said Ninfa Peña-Purcell, PhD, MCHES, a research scientist with the center. “Many individuals with diabetes do not fully understand the link between diabetes and heart disease. There is a great need for education on this topic because of the high rates of diabetes and heart disease comorbidity. Through this collaboration, we will join forces with ADA to respond to this need both in Texas and nationally.”

In addition to free online programming, the center’s Living Healthier with Diabetes research team has been studying how diabetes self-management education and support impacts health and health care. This study is designed to look at the effectiveness of different kinds of diabetes education. They hope the results will help us better understand the effects of diabetes self-management education and also benefit people with type 2 diabetes.

“I believe the Living Healthier with Diabetes project has demonstrated the great success virtual diabetes education and support services can have on disease management,” said Keri Carpenter, MPH, RDN, LDN, CHES, with the center. “A1cs are improving and healthy behaviors are being adopted. I hope this study will provide evidence for providers and organizations who may currently be hesitant to implement their own virtual health education programs. Virtual education can be one tool of many to efficiently and cost-effectively help patients who need support and face barriers that occur in some in-person education scenarios.”

Diabetes Self-Management Education and Support emphasizes seven self-care behaviors: healthy coping, healthy eating, being active, taking medication, monitoring, reducing risks and problem solving. These foundational behaviors coupled with a person-centered approach to goal setting can create true lifestyle changes over time.

To learn more about the center’s diabetes education research and programming, visit cpha.tamu.edu.

— Lauren Rouse

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