You can lower diabetes and heart disease risks by controlling blood sugar.

Heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 causes of death and disability among people with type 2 diabetes.

Blood glucose, or sugar, is an important fuel for your body. 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 it’s too low that’s normal, but when it’s too high that can lead to diabetes.

When your blood sugar is too high and you don’t produce enough insulin, your body’s 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. This is the fourth in a series of stories on Life’s Simple 7®. Stay tuned to find more information about ways you can use Life’s Simple 7 to prevent diseases and enjoy a healthier lifestyle.

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.

Starting at age 45 and if you are overweight, have your blood glucose level checked at least every three years. If you’re overweight and you have at least one additional cardiovascular risk factor, your doctor may recommend a blood glucose test earlier. 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 glucose it gets from food into cells to fuel the body. It’s a chronic, lifelong disease that can strike at any age, and it requires daily insulin injections for a person to survive.

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, accounting for over 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. When this inability worsens and the glucose increases too much, type 2 diabetes is present.

Type 2 diabetes can be prevented if caught early enough and is treatable with both lifestyle changes and medication.

Prediabetes and insulin resistance, which can develop if your blood sugar levels are higher than normal, increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Symptoms of diabetes include excessive thirst, fatigue, blurred vision, increased urination, increased appetite and unusual weight loss. Prediabetes doesn’t have symptoms, so 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.

Learn the state of your heart and what you can do to live a better life. Take this simple health assessment.

Take Action
Diabetes is treatable, but even when glucose levels are under control it 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.

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 most days of the 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, limiting alcohol and avoiding tobacco smoke can also play a big role in keeping your blood sugar at a healthy level.