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Diabetes and Heart Disease: Double Trouble for Women
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The phrases “Type 1” and “Type 2” have become commonplace in American conversations in recent years, as we’ve seen an incredible increase in the numbers of people diagnosed with diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls the increase in diabetes an epidemic, and doctors are particularly concerned with the jump in patients being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which is a preventable disease. Currently, the CDC estimates that more than 23 million Americans have diabetes — but 5 million of those cases are still undiagnosed. And, as if it weren’t bad enough to have diabetes, studies have shown that diabetic women also have increased risk of heart disease.

What is diabetes?

There are two kinds of diabetes, also known as hyperglycemia or high blood sugar. Most people are familiar with hearing the term “insulin” in relation to diabetes; insulin is a hormone that regulates glucose (sugar) in the blood. Type 1 diabetes is characterized by an insulin deficiency, while Type 2 — formerly known as “adult-onset diabetes” until it began to soar among children — is created when the body cannot process insulin effectively. Approximately 10% of diabetics have Type 1, while the rest have Type 2; Type 1 diabetes requires insulin injections, while Type 2 can be treated through a combination of diet, exercise, and medication.

The surge in Type 2 diabetes is linked to an increase in obesity in the United States, although anyone can get it. Risk factors also include women who have had gestational diabetes, family history of Type 2 diabetes, and people who smoke, have poor eating habits, or lead a sedentary lifestyle. A blood glucose test can determine if you have diabetes. An estimated 57 million people currently have “pre-diabetes” — elevated blood glucose; they are the lucky ones, because they have an opportunity to delay or even prevent diabetes by quickly taking control of their blood glucose levels.

The heart disease link

Unfortunately for diabetic women, the battle against heart disease can be an uphill one. A 2008 study of 45,000 Type 2 diabetics found that women were more likely than men to have high cholesterol, uncontrolled high blood pressure, and had more trouble controlling their blood glucose levels. Of more concern, however, was that the study found that women were also less likely than men to be treated properly for these medical conditions, therefore increasing their risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Simply put, women were not being prescribed the same common medications as men to help lower their cholesterol or blood pressure.

A 2009 study highlighted a unique side-effect for female diabetics: atrial fibrillation (AF), or an irregular heart rhythm. AF is the most common arrhythmia and doctors estimate that it affects about 1 million diabetics in the United States; the study showed that while male diabetics are at some risk for AF, their women counterparts were at much higher risk, and also as much as 26% higher risk than non-diabetic women. The study’s co-author, Sumeet Chugh, MD, of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, saw the findings as important, saying, “The gender differences need to be looked at more closely because they could have significant implications for how we treat diabetes in men and women.”

Diabetes and heart disease can become an unexpected one-two punch for many women. Because each disease shares common elements, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, overweight, and poor nutrition, you could start out as a woman with heart disease and also end up a diabetic, or be a diabetic who gets heart disease. This can be a real double-whammy for any woman, particularly since women tend to have lower incomes, more family responsibilities, and less health care insurance than men.

Am I diabetic?

African American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaska Native adults are twice as likely as white adults to have diabetes.

Possible symptoms include:

• Frequent urination
• Excessive thirst
• Extreme hunger
• Unusual weight loss
• Increased fatigue
• Irritability
• Blurry vision

If you have one of more of these symptoms, talk to your doctor about diabetes testing. Take the American Diabetic Association’s online risk test here.

Living with diabetes and heart disease

Is there any good news in this? Sure. The good news is that both diabetes and heart disease call for women to make pretty much the same lifestyle choices: eat a healthy low-fat diet, exercise regularly, lose weight, and quit smoking. If you’ve been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, then making smart choices now can help you beat diabetes before it gets worse. Talk to your doctor about how to properly monitor your blood glucose and make sure that you are receiving proper treatment. These commonsense actions can help you stay healthy and lead a long life — don’t let those statistics get you down!


American Diabetes Association: Diabetes & Heart Disease 

Diabetes At-A-Glance

Diagnosing Diabetes and Pre-Diabetes

Type 2 Diabetes Risk Test

Diabetes Food Advisor

Women With Diabetes At Increased Risk For Irregular Heart Rhythm

Less Intensive Treatment Given To Diabetic Women With Heart Disease

DiabetesSister's educational resources in English and Spanish

Women & Diabetes: 10 Relevant Health Topics for Women Living With Diabetes 

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WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) patient advocacy organization with thousands of members nationwide, including women heart patients and their families, health care providers, advocates and consumers committed to helping women live longer, healthier lives. WomenHeart supports, educates and advocates on behalf of the nearly 48 million American women living with or at risk of heart disease. Our programs are made possible by donations, grants and corporate partnerships.

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WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease is a founding partner of The Heart Truth Red Dress campaign. The Heart Truth and Red Dress are trademarks of HHS.