Understanding the Diabetes Heart Health Connection

Aug 15, 2022


Alto Pharmacy

Everyone should prioritize their heart health and take impactful steps to lower their risk of heart disease, a widespread and serious condition. For those with diabetes, it’s especially important to be proactive, as the condition doubles your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Read on to learn how diabetes affects heart health and what you can do to lower your risk of heart disease if you have diabetes.

What is heart disease?

The term heart disease refers to several different conditions that affect the heart:

  • Coronary artery disease — the most common type of heart disease — occurs when the blood vessels that supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood are hardened or blocked, affecting blood flow to the heart.

  • Peripheral arterial disease is characterized by a similar hardening of the arteries in the legs and feet. It is often the first sign of cardiovascular disease in an individual with diabetes.

  • Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump blood and oxygen as well as a healthy heart, often due to damaged heart muscle or blocked arteries.

  • A stroke occurs when the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain is blocked, often due to a blood clot or the accumulation of plaque in blood vessels.

Diabetes is one of several primary drivers of heart disease, along with uncontrollable risk factors like age and family history as well as controllable ones such as:

  • Smoking

  • Physical inactivity and obesity

  • High cholesterol

  • High blood pressure

How diabetes affects heart health

The connection between diabetes and heart health is twofold. First, it can directly increase your risk of heart disease, as high blood sugar — the defining feature of diabetes — can gradually damage your blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart.

Secondly, diabetes may increase your risk for other heart-related conditions, specifically:

  • High blood pressure, which occurs when the force of the blood flowing through your arteries is consistently too high, causing the heart to work harder. Damaged blood vessels as the result of diabetes can lead to high blood pressure. According to the American Diabetes Association, two out of three individuals with diabetes have high blood pressure or take blood pressure-lowering medication.

  • High levels of LDL cholesterol, which can also damage blood vessels over time, increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke. Elevated levels of cholesterol and other blood fats like triglycerides often go hand in hand with diabetes.

High blood pressure and high cholesterol are not accompanied with visible symptoms in many cases. For this reason, it’s important to stay on track with preventative screenings and to monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Symptoms of heart disease

If you have any condition that falls under the umbrella of diabetes — including prediabetes, type 1 diabetes, or type 2 diabetes — it’s important to learn the symptoms of heart disease. These are among the most common:

  • Chest pain, tightness, or pressure

  • Shortness of breath

  • Fainting, dizziness, or lightheadedness

  • Fatigue

  • Rapid or slow heartbeat

  • Pain in one or both arms

  • Numbness or weakness in your legs

Heart disease presents differently from one individual to another. However, if you have diabetes and experience any of the symptoms above — especially chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, or fatigue — it’s important to seek prompt medical care.

Decreasing your risk for heart disease

If you have diabetes, there are several steps you can take to lower your risk for heart disease. First and foremost, stay proactive about your diabetes treatment and work with your doctors to keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range.

There’s a useful acronym to help you remember important diabetic preventative actions — aka the ABCs:

  • A: Staying on track with the A1C test, which measures your average blood sugar levels over the past three months. Work with your doctor to identify your personal target range.

  • B: Staying on track with blood pressure screenings. Your doctor can help you understand your personal goal, however, a healthy range for those with diabetes is typically considered under 140/90 mm Hg.

  • C: Staying on track with cholesterol screenings and keeping LDL levels in a healthy range. As with your A1C and blood pressure levels, follow your doctor’s guidance regarding your personal target for cholesterol.

  • S: Avoid smoking, as it narrows your blood vessels, worsening diabetes and increasing your risk for heart disease. Ask your doctor for support with smoking cessation if needed.

In addition, follow a heart-healthy diet:

  • Opt for foods that are low in saturated fats and trans fats, which increase LDL cholesterol levels. Low-fat dairy products and chicken are healthier alternatives to full-fat dairy products and red meats.

  • Try to limit your sodium intake to 1,500 mg/day. Common sources of sodium include processed or prepackaged foods like soups, cold cuts, bread, and frozen meals.

When it comes to nutrition and diabetes, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. The ideal balance of calories from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats varies significantly by individual, so it’s important to consult your doctor about the approach that best supports your treatment plan. Consider working with a nutritionist or diabetes educator, a healthcare professional with extensive knowledge of diabetes who is certified to provide individualized coaching.

Heart disease medication

In some cases, your doctor may recommend medication to treat or prevent heart disease, in tandem with the above lifestyle changes. Heart disease medications commonly prescribed to individuals with diabetes include:

  • Empagliflozin (Jardiance®) and dapagliflozin (Farxiga®) help those with type 2 diabetes maintain healthy blood sugar levels and manage heart disease.

  • Statins such as atorvastatin (Lipitor®), fluvastatin (Lescol®), lovastatin (Mevacor®, Altoprev®), pitavastatin (Livalo®), pravastatin (Pravachol®), rosuvastatin calcium (Crestor®), and simvastatin (Zocor®) help maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

  • Blood pressure-lowering medications including beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, ARBs, and diuretics may also be used to prevent or manage heart disease in individuals with diabetes.

Take charge of your health

At Alto, we make it as simple as possible to manage your risk for heart health issues and stay on track with your individual treatment plan, whether it includes medications for diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure.

We will work with your doctor, your insurance (if applicable), and any third party savings programs that you may qualify for to ensure your medications are as affordable as possible. And our team of pharmacists is available to chat whenever questions come up about side effects or how to take your medication properly.

Reach out any time through secure in-app messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

All third party trademarks (including logos and icons) referenced by Alto Pharmacy remain the property of their respective owners. Unless specifically identified as such, Alto’s use of third party trademarks does not indicate any relationship, sponsorship or endorsement between Alto and the owners of these trademarks.