Diabetic Cardiomyopathy: 5 Tips for Cutting Your Risk

Recognizing symptoms may save your life

Diabetic Cardiomyopathy: 5 Tips for Cutting Your Risk

You may know that diabetes increases the risk of coronary artery disease, heart attack and stroke.

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But you may not know that research links diabetes to a higher risk of cardiomyopathy: thickening, stiffening and other changes in the heart muscle that limit the heart’s ability to pump blood throughout the body.

Cardiomyopathy develops as a result of blockages in the small and large vessels of the heart. Although doctors can detect and treat it, cardiovascular disease remains a major cause of mortality for people with diabetes. In fact, heart disease or stroke claim the lives of two out of three people with diabetes.

So it’s good to understand what causes cardiomyopathy, what its symptoms are, how to reduce your risk, and what treatments are available.

How cardiomyopathy develops

Diabetes can cause changes in the body and the heart over time.

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Those who don’t manage their diabetes well may experience long periods of high blood sugar, which damages blood vessels and nerves. In addition, obesity — often a factor in type 2 diabetes — strains the heart. Researchers link both issues to three reactions that take a toll on your body:

  • Increased release of hormones such as leptin, the “obesity hormone”
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Oxidative stress, which can damage DNA

Over time, these responses by your body may cause heart problems, including cardiomyopathy.

Tips for prevention

Studies show that the damage diabetic cardiomyopathy inflicts relates directly to blood glucose levels. So it’s important to keep those levels under control. Here are key tips to help you:

  1. Get 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five days a week.
  2. Monitor your blood sugar levels.
  3. Eat a healthy diet (and limit your carbohydrate intake).
  4. Take all medications/insulin prescribed by your doctor.
  5. See your doctor regularly.

If you keep your A1C levels regularly below 7, you can dramatically reduce your chances of heart-related complications.

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Signs to watch for

It’s important to watch for signs of cardiomyopathy so that you can seek treatment quickly. The condition can occur even when diabetes is well-controlled, so see your doctor if you notice:

  • Unusual breathlessness with minimal or no exertion
  • Swollen ankles, legs and feet
  • Fatigue
  • Cough not linked to cold or flu
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Chest pain
  • Irregular heartbeat

Screening and treatment

Screening for cardiomyopathy usually involves an echocardiogram (heart ultrasound), which provides a detailed picture of the heart.

If you do have cardiomyopathy, talk with your doctor about treatment options. It’s important to follow his or her suggestions to reduce your chances of heart failure. Depending on the severity of your condition, your doctor may recommend:

  • Lifestyle changes (stop smoking, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet)
  • Medications (including beta blockers and ACE inhibitors)
  • Procedures such as cardiac catheterization (to look at the blood vessels of the heart)
  • Bypass surgery or a heart transplant (for severe cases)

The best advice is to follow the tips to avoid complications and watch for signs of trouble. Your doctor also can help you monitor your condition.

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Sue Cotey and Andrea Harris, RNs

Sue Cotey, RN, CDE, and Andrea Harris, RN, CDE, are Diabetes Educators with the Lennon Diabetes Center at the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Health Center. Sue is the Program Coordinator.
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