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Know Your Risks

Women: How Controlling Blood Sugar Benefits Your Heart

A high blood sugar level is commonly associated with diabetes. But did you know that it’s also related to heart disease? A Johns Hopkins cardiologist explains how—and why the danger seems to be especially high for women.

women on stationary bikes
Why does my doctor measure my waist?

“Your girth around the abdomen is one of the strongest determinants of your risk for type 2 diabetes,” says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Bill McEvoy, M.B., B.Ch. Doctors call it central adiposity (otherwise known as belly fat), and it indicates a dangerous level of fat around your central organs.

“You may not be overweight all over, but if you have a beer belly or a potbelly shape, you are at increased risk for diabetes,” he explains. “That’s why in addition to body-mass index (BMI), you should have your waist circumference checked.”

When most people hear the term “blood sugar,” the disease that generally comes to mind is diabetes, not heart disease.

However, according to a Johns Hopkins study, type 1 and type 2 diabetes are some of the most harmful risk factors for cardiovascular disease, says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Bill McEvoy, M.B., B.Ch.

Keeping your blood sugar (as well as blood pressure and cholesterol levels) under control is, therefore, one of the best things you can do for your heart.

“A large proportion of diabetes patients have no symptoms, but diabetes, particularly when poorly controlled, is already harming their blood vessels and leading to hardening of the arteries, which is what leads to heart disease,” says McEvoy. In some cases, patients don’t even realize that they have diabetes until the disease progresses to the point where they have a heart attack, he says.

That’s why it’s important to be aware of your blood glucose numbers, along with monitoring your overall weight and body fat.

If Your Blood Sugar Is High

Losing weight is the best way to get high blood sugar under control. “Food is energy,” McEvoy explains. “If what goes in doesn’t get burned off, it accumulates on your body. This leads to a buildup of fat, particularly in the abdomen, which can cause diabetes.” Two effective tactics for helping lose extra pounds and prevent diabetes:

  • limiting your carbohydrate and sugar intake.
  • doing heart-pumping, heavy-breathing aerobic exercise.

If you’re just getting started with diet changes and exercise, work with your doctor to come up with a combined plan that’s best for your needs. Be sure to get your blood glucose levels monitored as recommended.

“We can often cure type 2 (or adult-onset) diabetes before you need insulin, with weight loss and changes in lifestyle. It’s reversible, especially when your glucose levels are in the mild range,” McEvoy says. “If your glucose levels are above normal, consider it a wake-up call.”

If You’re a Woman

Anyone with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes faces an elevated risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular problems, but women who are younger than 60—a group often thought of as having a lower danger of heart problems—have up to four times the risk of heart disease when they have type 2 diabetes, recent Johns Hopkins research shows.

That’s why women with high blood glucose levels should take the condition particularly seriously. Adults with poorly controlled diabetes are never too young to have a heart attack or stroke, McEvoy says. 

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