Diabetes is linked to a host of other health problems, but “if you can control your [blood sugar], then your risk of developing those complications goes down,” says diabetes educator Karen McDermaid. These five conditions are the big ones to look out for.
1. Diabetes complication: Heart disease and stroke
Cardiovascular disease is the leading causing of death for people who have diabetes. That’s because high blood sugar can cause a gradual buildup of fatty deposits that clog and harden the walls of blood vessels. And when blood vessels are partially blocked or narrowed, it can lead to a stroke or heart attack.
You’re more likely to have cardiovascular disease if you’ve been living with diabetes for more than 15 years. Same applies if diabetes complications have affected your eyes, kidneys or nerves, or if you’ve noticed problems with circulation, like chest pain when you’re physically active, or leg pain when you spend time walking.
Other cardiovascular risk factors also apply: If you smoke, have high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels, or have close relatives who have had heart attacks or stroke, your odds of developing the disease are higher.
Reduce your risk: If you smoke, quit. Increase your level of regular physical exercise. And stick to a well-balanced, heart-healthy diet.
2. Diabetes complication: Kidney disease
Diabetes is a leading cause of kidney failure. At least half of all people with diabetes may have signs of early kidney problems. High blood pressure, or a family history of it, can raise your risk of chronic kidney disease. High blood pressure also seems to speed up the development of the disease. Unfortunately, as kidney problems worsen, they themselves can be a cause of hypertension, creating a vicious cycle.
Reduce your risk: If high blood pressure is a problem, talk to your doctor about control measures, including medication. Aim for a target of lower than 130/80. Avoid a high-protein diet, and have regular urine tests.
3. Diabetes complication: Nerve damage
Diabetes can often lead to nerve disorders called neuropathies. If your blood vessels have narrowed from fatty deposits, then your nerves may become damaged because they’re not getting the oxygen and nourishment they need. Nerve damage may also be caused by other factors, like inflammation. Diabetic neuropathy can give you symptoms of pain, numbness, or tingling in your legs and toes, arms and fingers. Or you might have digestive complaints like nausea, indigestion, or constipation. Nerve damage can even cause sexual dysfunction.
Reduce your risk: Keep your blood glucose levels in a healthy range. And cut bad habits: Smoking and drinking alcohol can increase the likelihood that you’ll develop diabetic neuropathy.
4. Diabetes complication: Amputations
There are two reasons diabetes can lead to amputations of your feet or legs. Because of narrowed blood vessels, circulation to your lower body parts may be compromised. That means cuts or sores on your feet or legs will have a tough time healing and can get increasingly worse. Second, if you have nerve damage from diabetes, you might not feel the pain of a foot problem. Sores that you don’t notice can become infected and fester, leading to the need for amputation.
Reduce your risk: Give good care to your feet by cleaning and inspecting them every day. Avoid anything might hurt your feet, like walking barefoot or wearing poorly fitting socks. If you get a foot sore that isn’t healing, see your doctor for treatment.
5. Diabetes complication: Vision loss
Diabetes can cause blockages or abnormal growth of blood vessels in the retina, the part of the eye that reads images. Blood vessel changes in the retina can lead to vision problems and even blindness. People with diabetes are also more likely to develop cataracts or glaucoma.
Reduce your risk: Get a full eye exam at least once a year. Report any strange spots or blurriness to your doctor. If you’re pregnant, see an eye specialist as early as you can. And, you guessed it: Keep your blood glucose levels in a normal range.
For general good health with diabetes, says McDermaid, it’s critical not only that your blood sugar is kept in control, but that your blood pressure and cholesterol levels are healthy as well.
Web exclusive May 2011 Best Health magazine