The ABCs of heart disease and diabetes

Learn how watching your A1C, blood pressure, and cholesterol can help you reduce your risk of heart problems and manage your diabetes.
Woman managing diabetes for heart health
Diabetes comes with its fair share of to-dos: check blood sugar; take medication; choose healthy foods; move every day. The list can seem endless. It can be a lot to handle but consider this: Every step you take to manage your diabetes is also linked with improving heart health. And that’s an important – and powerful – payoff. 
People with diabetes are twice as likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But those complications aren’t inevitable. And when you follow your ABCs, you can help keep your heart strong and your diabetes in check.


A is for A1C

Many people with diabetes check their blood sugar levels daily, but a doctor will also typically check A1C about twice a year (sometimes more). This test reveals average blood sugar levels over the previous three months. 
When A1C inches above 7%, the risk for heart-related and other complications rises. That’s partly because high levels of blood sugar can physically damage the arteries and nerves that help the heart function.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to prevent heart disease. One way people with diabetes can help reduce risk is to bring their weight to a healthy range. In fact, losing a small amount of weight can significantly improve blood sugar levels and reduce the related damage to the heart and arteries.


B is for blood pressure 

Blood pressure is the force exerted against the arteries when the heart beats. And because diabetes can damage arteries, they can become stiffer. That means the heart has to work harder to do its job. It can feel like a vicious cycle.
While there are plenty of medications that can help keep blood pressure in check, regular monitoring is also important. Ask your doctor whether it makes sense for you to get an at-home blood pressure monitor. In general, normal blood pressure is below 120/80 mm Hg according to the American Heart Association. Your doctor will help you set a target that’s best for you.
“[An at-home blood pressure machine] can be a good investment,” says Pam R. Taub, M.D. with UC San Diego Health. “And monitoring your own blood pressure can give you insight into how diet may be contributing to high blood pressure.” Case in point: In some people, salty foods may cause blood pressure to spike.


C is for cholesterol

Diabetes doesn’t just affect how the body handles sugar. “It increases all the bad fats in the body, and it decreases the good cholesterol too,” says Prakash Deedwania, M.D. fellow at the American Heart Association. “Diabetes also makes the blood cells stickier, which increases the risk of forming a blood clot.”
When cholesterol builds up, it can block blood flow to the heart (causing a heart attack) or the brain (causing a stroke). While that can sound scary, there are many lifestyle changes to help prevent heart attack or stroke. In fact, some of those changes are probably healthy habits you may be doing already – like exercise and eating healthy meals.
There are also several medications available that can help back up your efforts. Be sure to ask your doctor about your options. If you are prescribed medication by your doctor, be sure to take it as directed. Suddenly stopping medication can harm your heart, says Dr. Deedwania.
Managing diabetes and heart health can seem overwhelming at times. But if you follow the ABCs of regularly checking A1C, blood pressure, and cholesterol, you’ll be several steps ahead on your health journey. 

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