Happy Valentine’s Day…a couple days late. February is American Heart month, so why would I start by talking about your older loved one’s pancreas? Let’s start with the fact that one in four adults over age 65 develops diabetes. And although it is over-simplifying things a bit to say that type 2 diabetes is all about having too many sweets, there is a strong connection between consuming too many carbohydrates over one’s lifetime and developing type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, there also is a strong connection between diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
But wait, it gets even scarier. The combined prevalence of prediabetes and diabetes – both undiagnosed and diagnosed, respectively – is estimated to be between 50% and 80% among older Americans. So, why does this affect the heart? Well, diabetes has a way of making a person’s blood a bit sticky. Well not literally sticky like gum on a sidewalk, but uncontrolled diabetes leaves more sugar floating in the bloodstream, and the sticky cells that have been tangled up with the blood sugar tend to block the smallest vessels in the cardiovascular system. The heart may pump blood through some very big arteries, but the muscle itself is made up of a lot of microvascular pathways that keep it fed and oxygenated. Once we add free sugar to the mix, some of those tiny vessels become clogged. The less well-controlled the diabetes is, the more sugar is roaming the cardiovascular highway, and the more blockage there is. No surprise then, that in excess of 70% of both men and women over age 60 have some level of cardiovascular disease.
Now, we could go on about the damage to other microvascular regions of the human body like the kidneys or even the eyes and the feet and the hands, but the lesson is already clear. As we reflect on our past valentine’s day, go a bit lighter on the candy that may still remain in the box and a bit heavier on the love. Because in addition to hurting the little vessels of the heart, the excess chocolates that we cannot burn as energy for our bodies get stored. And you probably already see where this is going; the unused sugar gets converted to fat, and each pound of that unwanted baggage creates another mile of blood vessels. It is a bit crazy to think that we have to feed the fat, but every cell of the human anatomy is no more than one cell away from a supply of blood.
So Valentine’s Day has to share the calendar with American Heart Month. And if we all do that, then maybe we can even consider renaming February as American All Around Healthy month?
Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Professional and a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. Please email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.