How Diabetes Affects the Body Long-Term
Diabetes is a serious disease that must be treated and managed properly to avoid additional long-term damage on the body. If not addressed, diabetes can lead to a number of other severe health issues. When managed well, people with diabetes can live relatively normal lives, but having diabetes puts them at significantly higher risk for additional health problems.
Aside from the symptoms of diabetes itself, if left untreated, diabetes can cause:
- Skin complications
- Eye complications
- Nerve damage
- High blood pressure
- Kidney disease
How Diabetes Can Lead to Strokes
While these are all serious conditions, perhaps the most concerning is the medical emergency of a stroke. High blood sugar and high blood pressure are related because of the damage that high blood sugar causes within the blood vessels. Because the body is unable to process the sugar properly, it builds up in the blood and causes inflammation in the vessels.
"Inflammation in blood vessels is one of the main drivers of atherosclerosis, and diabetes makes it much worse," says Jun-ichi Abe, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor with the Aab Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center and author of a related study in Science Daily.
High blood sugar can damage the cells lining the inside of the blood vessels in two ways, according to the study. First, it creates more free radicals, which are molecules that cause damage to sensitive cell components like DNA and cause early cell death. Second, it reduces the amount of nitric oxide, which usually helps blood vessels relax and increases blood flow.
Blood pressure increases to dangerous levels when the arteries get blocked by plaque buildup, and when that plaque buildup breaks off and forms clots, it can block blood flow to the brain. That blocked blood flow to the brain is what we call a stroke, which is life-threatening.
The bottom line? High blood sugar damages your blood vessels, which significantly increases your risk of high blood pressure. And high blood pressure leads to strokes.
Diabetes and Nerve Damage
Over time, diabetes can cause nerve damage, which is a condition referred to as "diabetic neuropathy." Scientists are still determining how exactly high blood sugar causes nerve damage, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) says. (But according to , high blood sugar is not the only factor at play. Other contributing conditions include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and obesity.)
Regardless of the particulars of how diabetes causes nerve damage, the fact is that approximately 50 percent of people with type 2 diabetes and approximately 20 percent of people with type 1 diabetes experience diabetic peripheral neuropathy (peripheral meaning it specifically affects nerves near the surface of the skin). It usually affects feet, hands, legs and arms, where nerve fibers are the longest and most numerous.
It's important to know that once nerve damage appears, it cannot be cured. But the good news is, if you have not yet experienced nerve damage, it is possible to avoid it with proper diabetes treatment and prevention efforts.
Diabetes and Skin & Eye Problems
People with diabetes are at a higher risk of skin problems like bacterial infections, fungal infections and itching. In fact, according to the ADA, skin complications can be one of the first signs a person has the disease. The good news is these can often be prevented or easily treated if caught early.
Eye problems are also common with people who have diabetes — there's risk of developing glaucoma, cataracts or diabetic retinopathy (any problems affecting the retina caused by diabetes). Though you may have heard diabetes can cause blindness, most diabetic eye complications are minor and can be treated.
Diabetes and Kidney Disease
Diabetes can damage the system kidneys use to filter waste out of the blood and retain important substances like protein and red blood cells. High blood sugar makes the kidneys filter too much blood, strains the filters and over time can cause leakage, losing important protein via urine. If left untreated, the kidneys can lose their ability to filter altogether, allowing waste to build up in the blood and eventually causing kidney failure — a very serious condition. Managing your glucose and blood pressure levels as well as seeing your doctor regularly will help prevent kidney disease.
Diabetes can be maintained with proper diet and exercise and potentially medication, but it's important to know the increased risk of other damage diabetes can cause.
There are several early warning signs of diabetes to be aware of, and if you are exhibiting any of these symptoms it's a good idea to talk to your doctor about getting screened:
- Blurred vision
- Increased hunger
- Increased thirst
- Tingling (typically in hands or feet)
- Slow-healing wounds
- Unusual weight loss
- Frequent urination
- Recurring skin, gum or bladder infections
Life Line Screening uses a simple finger-prick test called the A1C panel to assess blood sugar levels and determine whether or not you have prediabetes or diabetes. We'll also give you your results so you can share them with your doctor and come up with a plan for managing your blood sugar if needed.
If you think you might be at risk for diabetes, schedule a screening today.