Understanding the link between diabetes, heart disease

People with diabetes are twice as likely to develop heart disease as non-diabetics.
OLNEY, Pa. (WPVI) -- People with diabetes are twice as likely to develop heart disease as non-diabetics.

And those with Type 2 diabetes face the biggest risk.

But many patients don't realize what makes diabetes so dangerous, and why control is so important.

"Stomach pains, really bad stomach pains," recalls Rosa Diaz of the first sign she was diabetic.

A blood test verified it.

"My sugar was like 300 and something," she says, adding, "Now I'm injecting myself 3 times, 4 times a day."

However, Rosa knew she was at risk for diabetes long before the first pains.

"My mother had it. My father had it. Everyone in his family had it - his mother, his father, all his brothers and sisters," she recalls.

Getting a blood sugar balance has been hard.

"I've had crashes, like really bad crashes," Rosa notes.

Blood sugar swings contribute directly to plaque buildup in the arteries.

High blood sugar makes the inner layer of blood vessels leaky, letting cholesterol seep in and turn to plaque.

"That actually builds up between the 2 innermost layers of that tube," says Dr. Aditi Kalla, a cardiologist at Temple Health's Heart and Vascular Institute.

"The rate of plaque buildup is correlated with how well-controlled or poorly controlled your diabetes is," she says.

Dr. Kalla says the plaque doesn't just build up in one place. It can affect every organ.

However, the heart bears the brunt.

Last fall, a bad dizzy spell sent Rosa to Jeanes Hospital, where tests showed three clogged heart arteries.

"Bingo. One was 100% closed. The other one was 75% or 78%. The other was in the 80s," she says.

And she had had a silent heart attack, one she didn't feel because diabetes also damages nerves.

After quadruple bypass surgery at Temple, Rosa is working hard to control her blood sugar.

A glucose monitor helps -

"I have the FreeStyle Libre. And it's wonderful. No more pricked fingers," she says with a smile.

Dr. Kalla says a good diet is also essential.

"Aim for a diet that's a bit more protein-heavy. And that is because protein is not immediately broken down," she says.

And so is exercise, including weight training.

"Increasing your muscle mass does increase your metabolism, which again really helps us in the long run," says Dr. Kalla.

Rosa also works with a Vascular Center nurse by Zoom to manage her diet and medications.

And she hopes to get the green light soon for an insulin pump to add another more control.
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