Diabetes and Heart Attack: Connection, Risk, Treatment

If you have diabetes, your risk for heart disease, including having a heart attack, is higher than for someone without the condition. Therefore, having diabetes makes it even more important to monitor your heart health.

This article discusses the connection between diabetes and heart attacks and how you can manage diabetes while reducing your risk of a heart attack.

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Connection Between Diabetes and Heart Attack

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition that affects how the body processes blood sugar (glucose) and causes high blood glucose levels. Over time, high blood sugar can damage your blood vessels and nerves. Untreated or uncontrolled diabetes can lead to many complications, including heart disease.

When you have diabetes, risk for heart disease or stroke is almost double that of someone without diabetes, and your risk tends to develop at a younger age.

Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, is the leading cause of death in people with diabetes. In one systematic review (summary of a broad amount of medical literature on a specific topic), cardiovascular disease was linked to about half of all deaths of people with type 2 diabetes within a 10-year period.

Risks

Factors in people with diabetes that increase the risk for heart disease and stroke include:

  • Having obesity
  • Smoking
  • Not getting enough physical activity
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure) (your heart works harder to pump blood through the body, putting extra strain on the heart and blood vessels)
  • High levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood)
  • High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, known as “bad” cholesterol, that can clog the arteries supplying blood and oxygen to the heart, leading to a buildup of plaque known as coronary artery disease
  • Chronic kidney disease

Treatment and Management of Diabetes With Heart Disease

Managing your diabetes can help lower your risk for heart disease and heart attack.

The following are several ways to lower your risk of heart disease when you have diabetes.

Aim for Healthy Food Choices

Heart-healthy foods can benefit your blood sugar levels and diabetes management and lower your risk for heart complications. Healthy foods to incorporate into your diet include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Lean proteins
  • Fewer sugary drinks
  • Less processed food, such as snack chips and sweets

Work With a Diabetes Care and Education Specialist

Certified diabetes care and education specialists can help identify the right food choices for your needs. Speak to your healthcare provider about a referral to someone in your area.

Regularly Check Hemoglobin A1C Levels

Your hemoglobin A1C number indicates your average blood sugar levels over the previous two to three months. Most people with diabetes should have their A1C checked every three to six months. Discuss any unusual numbers with your healthcare team and determine your A1C goal; for many people with diabetes, it’s 7% or lower.

Know Your Blood Pressure

High blood pressure can also raise your risk for heart disease, including a heart attack. Speak to your healthcare provider about a healthy range.

Track Your Cholesterol

Like A1C and blood pressure, cholesterol is another number to monitor regularly. Healthier food choices and physical activity can help lower cholesterol, but sometimes medication is needed. Discuss cholesterol goal numbers with your healthcare provider and ways to achieve this.

Lose Weight If Needed

Losing even just 5% to 7% of your body weight can make a difference in your outlook, including your blood sugar and triglyceride levels.

Get Regular Physical Activity

Regular physical activity will lower your risk for heart disease and potentially lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, too. Current federal guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate, heart-pumping exercise each week.

If you’re new to exercise, start slow and work up gradually. You can also break your physical activity into smaller chunks, such as 10-minute brisk walks after each meal.

Quit Smoking

Ask your healthcare provider for resources to quit smoking, or use your state’s free “quitline” by calling 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669). Information also is available in Spanish (877-44U-QUIT, or 877-448-7848).

Take Necessary Medications

Take all medications for heart disease or diabetes that your healthcare provider recommends. These medications may help lower cholesterol or blood sugar and reduce heart attack risk.

Get Emergency Care for a Heart Attack

When you have diabetes, nerve damage may prevent you from feeling pain caused by a heart attack. Be sure to pay attention to all of your symptoms and seek emergency care at the sign of any heart attack symptoms.

Heart Attack Symptoms

Call 911 (or have someone call for you) if you have any symptoms of a heart attack, including:

  • Chest pain or pressure that lasts a few minutes or goes away and returns
  • Indigestion
  • Pain in your arm, jaw, or shoulders
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Unusual fatigue

Summary

Having diabetes and sustained blood sugar levels can raise your risk for a heart attack due to associated blood vessel damage. Certain risk factors associated with diabetes, including obesity, lack of physical activity, high blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides, also contribute to a higher risk of a heart attack.

Making healthy choices, such as eating more nutritiously, regular physical activity, and monitoring your health numbers (such as your hemoglobin A1C and blood pressure), can lower your chance of a heart attack when you have diabetes.

A Word From Verywell

Diabetes can be a lot to manage, and it can be even more challenging to learn that you also have a higher risk for heart disease or a heart attack. However, you can help lower your risk of heart attack. Work with your healthcare team to follow a heart-healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, and get more physical activity.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes and your heart.

  3. American Diabetes Association. Cardiovascular disease.

  4. Einarson TR, Acs A, Ludwig C, et al. Prevalence of cardiovascular disease in type 2 diabetes: a systematic literature review of scientific evidence from across the world in 2007-2017. Cardiovascular Diabetology. 2018;17, 83. doi:10.1186/s12933-018-0728-6

  5. American Heart Association. Cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Diabetic heart disease.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get active!


By Vanessa Caceres

Vanessa Caceres is a nationally published health journalist with over 15 years of experience covering medical topics including eye health, cardiology, and more.

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