Blood glucose, or sugar, is an important fuel for your body. When it’s at the recommended level that’s normal, but when it’s too high that can lead to diabetes. Insulin is a hormone that is important for controlling blood glucose levels. But if your glucose levels become too high or too low, your body can have trouble producing a hormone called insulin that it needs to stay healthy.
When your body doesn’t produce enough insulin or it doesn’t efficiently use the insulin it makes, your blood sugar may become too high. When this happens, your body’s cells cannot use the sugar in your blood and the cells can be starved for energy. Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage your eyes, kidneys, nerves or heart.
That’s why managing your blood sugar level is one of what the American Heart Association calls Life’s Simple 7® — key health factors and behaviors that keep your heart healthy, lower your risk of heart disease and stroke, and improve your quality of life.
Learn About Diabetes
Knowing your blood sugar numbers is the first step to managing your blood glucose, and your best chance at preventing diabetes, said Robert H. Eckel, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and a past president of the American Heart Association.
If you're at least 45 years old, you should get tested for diabetes, and then you should be tested again every 3 years. If you're 45 or older and overweight (Calculate your Body Mass Index) you may want to get tested more often.. Other risk factors include a family history of diabetes, a history of gestational diabetes or delivering a baby over 9 pounds, or if you are of African-American, Asian-American, Latino/Hispanic-American, Native American or Pacific Islander descent.
“If your mother or father has type 2 diabetes, your risk of developing it increases by two- to four-fold,” Dr. Eckel said. Tests for diabetes are done by checking the blood, in some cases after a period of fasting.
Learn more about the risk factors for diabetes, as well as prediabetes and insulin resistance, and how you can lower your risks for developing it.
Type 1 diabetes, which was previously known as juvenile diabetes because it is usually diagnosed in children and young adults, occurs when the pancreas makes little or no insulin. It prevents your body from taking the blood glucose it gets from food into cells to fuel the body. It is a chronic, lifelong disease that can strike at any age, and it requires daily insulin injections for a person to survive – which is why it is often referred to as “insulin-dependent diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, accounting for more than 90 percent of cases, and occurs when the body develops “insulin resistance.” With insulin resistance your body can’t efficiently use the insulin it makes and then the pancreas can gradually lose its capacity to produce insulin. Type 2 diabetes can occur when these inabilities worsen, and the body cannot respond to the increased blood glucose.
Type 2 diabetes can be prevented if caught early enough and is treatable with both lifestyle changes and medication.
Symptoms of both types of diabetes include increased thirst and appetite, fatigue, blurred vision, increased urination, and weight loss. Prediabetes doesn’t have symptoms, so if you have a family history of type 2 diabetes or heart disease, or any other risk factors described above then it’s important to be tracking your blood sugar so you can make changes if it’s too high before it develops into full-blown diabetes.
Diabetes is manageable, but even when glucose levels are under control diabetes greatly increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. In fact, most people with diabetes die from some form of heart or blood vessel disease. Heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 causes of death and disability among people with type 2 diabetes.
If you’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, take the American Heart Association’s My Diabetes Health Assessment to better understand your risks. If your doctor says you need medications or insulin injections, it’s important to take them as prescribed.
A major risk factor for developing prediabetes or diabetes is being overweight or obese. “The more fat you have on board, the more likely you are to develop diabetes,” Dr. Eckel said.
But even if you have a family history of the disease, type 2 diabetes may be delayed or controlled with diet and exercise, and even modest weight loss can make a difference. “The more weight you can lose, the better the outcome, but losing 5 percent, and keeping it off, can be effective at lowering glucose levels,” Dr. Eckel said.
Work to get your weight into a healthy range by eating a heart-healthy diet. Start a food diary to get a clear picture of your eating habits and avoid eating sugary things such as soda, juice, candy or other desserts that can cause blood sugar to spike.
Getting regular physical activity is also important. Fitting in moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, for 30 minutes a day 5 days a week can make a big impact on your health. If you’re too busy to find a 30-minute block of time, try splitting into two 15-minute sessions or even three 10-minute sessions.
Managing stress, moderate alcohol consumption and avoiding tobacco products can also play a big role in keeping your blood sugar at a healthy level. These three lifestyle factors help more than just blood sugar too – they also improve blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health.
- AHA Physical Activity Recommendations for Adults Infographic
- Reducing Blood Glucose with Life's Simple 7® Infographic
- Learn about getting heart healthy one simple step at a time with the other 6 of Life's Simple 7®
- Work with Your Health Care Team
Last reviewed 4/2014