Last updated on Jun 17th, 2021 at 04:20 pm

About 350 million people worldwide have diabetes. In 2012, diabetes was the direct cause of about 1.5 million deaths, with more than 80% of those occurring in low- and middle-income countries. It’s estimated that between one and two in every 10 adults in South Africa has diabetes.

How diabetes affects your heart health

Prolonged high-blood sugar levels can severely compromise every organ system in your body, causing nerve damage, kidney failure, blindness, impotence and infections, which can lead to amputations.

“Diabetes more than doubles the risk for heart disease or strokes,” says Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA (HSFSA). People with diabetes are more likely to develop atherosclerosis (a disease in which plaque builds up inside your arteries and narrows the blood vessels) at a younger age compared with people without diabetes. The narrowing and eventual blockage of blood vessels can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Diabetes further amplifies the damage done by other risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking, abdominal obesity, high-blood pressure and abnormal blood lipids. Diabetes can even affect the heart muscle itself, making it a less efficient pump.

When suffering a heart attack or a stroke, the prognosis is often worse for someone with diabetes. Diabetics may also suffer “silent” heart attacks due to nerve damage. This means they experience less acute chest pain, which can lead to a delayed diagnosis and treatment.

Subscribe to our Free Daily All4Women Newsletter to enter

Causes of diabetes

There are two types of diabetes: type-1 and type-2:

  • Type-1 is an autoimmune condition, where the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin. The cause is unknown and is often inherited.
  • Type-2 diabetes is far more common than type-1. In type-2 diabetes the body doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the body’s cells don’t react to insulin.

There are several risk factors for the condition:

  • Unhealthy lifestyle
  • Inactivity
  • Excess weight.

“Our lifestyles are rapidly changing, which means we are becoming less active and eating unhealthily. As a result, obesity levels are soaring. Alarmingly, type-2 diabetes is now also occurring in children, putting them at risk for heart disease at a younger age,” says Dr Mungal-Singh.

Can you prevent diabetes?

“The good news is that for many people, diabetes, as well as heart disease and strokes, can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle. And for those who already have diabetes, it can be treated and managed to prevent complications, such as heart disease and strokes,” says Prof Naomi Levitt, Director of Chronic Disease Initiative Africa.

This World Health Day we encourage you to act on these five steps to prevent and manage diabetes:

  • If in doubt, check

The typical symptoms of diabetes include more frequent urination, extreme thirst, increased hunger, unexplained weight loss, tiredness, loss of concentration, blurred vision, delayed wound healing and itching, particularly around the genital areas. However, the symptoms are often less marked in type-2 diabetes, and as a result, the disease may be diagnosed several years after onset, once complications have already arisen. The best way to find out if you have diabetes or if you are at risk is to have your blood sugar (glucose) level measured.

  • Eat healthily

A healthy diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits, and lower amounts of added sugars and unhealthy fats can help prevent type-2 diabetes, and is also an approach to helping those with diabetes manage their condition.

  • Be active

To prevent type-2 diabetes, as well as to manage the condition, the goal is to be moderately active for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.

  • Don’t smoke

If you have diabetes and you’re a smoker, you’ll accelerate the damage to the blood vessels and drastically increase your risk for heart disease.

  • Follow medical advice

In addition to a healthy lifestyle, taking prescribed medication and controlling other chronic conditions is an essential strategy to managing diabetes and preventing further complications.

Visit for more information on World Health Day.