February 8, 2023

The connection between Type 2 diabetes and heart disease

Group of children in a park eating apples

If you have a child with diabetes, it’s important to know the connection between diabetes and heart disease. You may know that people with diabetes are more prone to heart disease. Fortunately, however, many of the healthy lifestyle habits recommended for people with diabetes do “double duty” by also reducing risk for heart disease.

What, exactly, is the connection between diabetes and risk for heart disease? Diabetes increases your blood sugar, and high blood sugar can damage the blood vessels and nerves that control your heart.

Whether you have a child with diabetes or one who struggles with excess weight, it’s a good idea to find out whether they have any of these conditions:

  • High blood pressure

  • Too much LDL (bad) cholesterol

  • High triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood)

  • Not enough HDL (good) cholesterol

Because none of these conditions have symptoms, the only way to find out if anything is abnormal is to visit your child’s pediatric or family medicine clinic for a blood pressure check and a simple blood test that tells you their cholesterol levels.

Dr. M. Tracy Bekx, a UW Health Kids pediatric endocrinologist who cares for children with diabetes, urges parents to set a good example by serving healthy food whenever possible, being active and avoiding smoking.

“Establishing healthy life habits begins early in life,” Bekx says. “Unfortunately, the popularity of cell phones, television and video streaming services breed sedentary behavior. COVID-19 has made the struggle even tougher in recent years while so much of our time was spent at home.”

This was especially prevalent during the “lockdown” phase, Bekx notes, when kids were home, physical activity declined, and stress levels went up.

“Years ago,” she says, “most children with diabetes were diagnosed with Type 1, a condition in which cells in the pancreas that make insulin are destroyed.” Insulin is a hormone the body needs for converting blood sugar (glucose) into immediate or stored energy.

“Today,” Bekx adds, “we are concerned about the increasing number of kids diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which used to be known as adult-onset diabetes. People with Type 2 are insulin resistant. Their bodies make insulin, but it is not as effective, causing excess glucose to build up in the blood rather than getting into our cells and giving us energy.”

Type 2 diabetes becoming more prevalent in children

A recent study of UW Health pediatric diabetes patients confirms the trend. In 2018, Bekx says, about 1 out of 17 newly diagnosed diabetic children seen at American Family Children’s Hospital had Type 2 diabetes. By 2021, the second year of the COVID-19 epidemic, it increased to 1 out of 6.

Is Type 2 diabetes preventable? Bekx says yes and no.

“Controlling your weight, staying active, eating well and not smoking all help reduce your chances for getting diabetes, and heart disease,” Bekx says. “At the same time, there are other risk factors that we have no control over, such as family history and our ethnic or racial heritage.”

American Indians/Alaskan Natives, Blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans all have elevated risk for Type 2 diabetes.

Whether or not a child has diabetes, Bekx says we can play a role in determining our health outcomes.

“Making choices to eat more fruits and vegetables and to get outside and move is an important example parents can provide, and their children will follow.