Diabetes and Stroke: Risks, Symptoms, Treatments, and Key Insights

Diabetes can damage blood vessels that carry blood to the brain, which raises the risk of stroke. Discover strategies that can help lower that risk.

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by
April Benshosan
— Signos
Health Writer
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Reviewed by

April Benshosan
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
July 19, 2024
February 1, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Living with diabetes (also known as diabetes mellitus) raises your risk of developing other health complications, including stroke. People living with diabetes are almost twice as likely to have a stroke because chronically high blood sugar levels increase the risk of getting a blood clot that can lead to stroke. 

However, there are plenty of actionable steps you can take to help reduce your risk of a stroke. Unsurprisingly, many of these smart strategies can also bolster your overall health and help lower your risk of developing other health issues down the line.

Here, we outline exactly what a diabetic stroke is, as well as its common causes, symptoms, risks, and possible treatments.1

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What Is a Stroke?

The brain contains many blood vessels that provide it with the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function. When you get a stroke, one of these blood vessels either becomes blocked (ischemic stroke) or ruptured (hemorrhagic stroke). In either scenario, that vital oxygen supply to the brain gets cut off and causes a stroke, which can damage brain tissue and lead to neurological symptoms such as memory loss, pain, and difficulty speaking, among others.2

Diabetes and Stroke Connection

Having diabetes means you're at an increased risk of getting a stroke and other health conditions. The link here lies in the consequences of having high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). 

Here's exactly how it manifests: When you have diabetes, your body either doesn't make enough insulin (type 1 diabetes) or doesn't use the insulin your body produces correctly (type 2 diabetes). Insulin is a hormone that shuttles the glucose (sugar) you get from food into your cells for energy. If diabetes is left untreated, the glucose sticks around in the bloodstream instead of entering cells and causes chronically high blood sugar levels, which contributes to serious health issues such as cardiovascular disease.

People living with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease or get a stroke at a younger age than people without diabetes.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="can-you-reverse-diabetes">Can You Reverse Type 2 Diabetes? What The Research Says</a>.</p>

How Does Diabetes Cause Stroke?

Untreated diabetes means you have chronically high blood sugar. Living with hyperglycemia can eventually cause fatty deposits called plaques to form inside the blood vessels in a process known as atherosclerosis. The more plaque buildup, the more narrow the blood vessels get, and narrow blood vessels can't effectively transport blood and oxygen to your heart, brain, and other organs. In the case of a stroke, there's a lack of blood flow to the brain cells. If left untreated, a stroke can lead to permanent brain damage.

There are two main types of stroke: 

  • Ischemic Stroke: Occurs when a blood vessel that supplies the brain with oxygen-rich blood becomes blocked by fatty deposits, a condition called atherosclerosis. This is the most common type of stroke — about 87 percent of strokes are ischemic. 
  • Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA): A TIA, sometimes called a "ministroke" or "warning stroke," is a type of ischemic stroke. It occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked for a short amount of time and, therefore, doesn't lead to lasting brain damage. 
  • Hemorrhagic Stroke: Occurs when a blood vessel ruptures and causes bleeding in the brain. 3, 4

What Are the Symptoms of a Stroke?

A stroke is a stroke, whether it's caused by diabetes or not. So, the symptoms of diabetes stroke are the same as the symptoms of any stroke. Being familiar with the common stroke symptoms can help you get help sooner, and the quicker you attend to a stroke, the lower your risk of having lasting damage. Getting to the emergency room within three hours of experiencing the first symptoms of a stroke can help avoid disability, but the sooner, the better. 

Common symptoms of a stroke include:

  • Numbness or weakness, usually on one side of the body
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding speech
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes or double vision
  • Dizziness or loss of balance or coordination
  • Trouble walking
  • Sudden severe headache 5, 6

How Is a Diabetes-Related Stroke Treated?

Each type of stroke is treated differently, so treatment will differ based on whether you've had an ischemic or hemorrhagic stroke.

The different types of stroke treatments include:

  • Drugs to Break up Blood Clots: A medication called Tissue Plasminogen Activator (tPA) helps restore blood flow to the brain by dissolving the artery-clogging clot. But tPA must be taken within three hours of your first stroke symptoms.
  • Surgery to Remove Fat Blocking Your Arteries: Also known as carotid endarterectomy, this surgery removes the fatty plaque built up in the carotid arteries, which supply your brain and face with oxygen-rich blood, to improve blood flow and reduce your risk of getting another stroke. 
  • Surgery to Place a Stent in a Blood Vessel: Also known as carotid stenting, this less-invasive procedure involves inserting a small metal mesh tube (a stent) into the blocked area in the carotid artery to keep the artery open and allow blood to flow through.
  • Rehabilitation: If you're dealing with neurological effects after a stroke, physical therapy or occupational therapy may be able to help. Physical therapy can help you strengthen the side of your body affected by the stroke. Occupational therapy can help you relearn important everyday tasks, such as brushing your teeth and getting dressed. Your healthcare team may also recommend speech therapy and/or psychological counseling, depending on your symptoms. 7, 8, 9

How Can You Reduce Your Risk of a Stroke?

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If you live with diabetes, managing your condition and making certain lifestyle changes can significantly slash your risk of getting a stroke. 

To help reduce your risk, make sure to:

  • Keep All Your Medical Appointments and Follow Your Diabetes Care Plan: Make sure to attend all your doctor appointments and get your blood pressure and blood glucose checked regularly. This helps you monitor and manage your health conditions, and potentially pinpoint any dangerous risk factors early.
  • Lower Your Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Levels if You Need to: If you have high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol, make sure to prioritize a heart-healthy diet recommended by your healthcare provider. For example, if you have high blood pressure (hypertension), you may need to limit your daily sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams or below. If you have high cholesterol, your doctor may recommend a high-fiber diet and/or omega-3 supplements, or you may need to start statin therapy. 
  • Limit Alcohol: Drinking too much alcohol can contribute to many different conditions that can raise your risk of having a stroke, including high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation (a heart condition), being overweight, and liver damage.
  • Quit smoking and Stay Away From Second-Hand Smoke: Smoking is a major risk factor for stroke because it raises triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood), lowers your “good” HDL cholesterol, increases the buildup of plaque in the blood vessels, and damages the blood vessels. Secondhand smoke can also damage the blood vessels and cause your blood to become stickier — so much so that exposure to secondhand smoke causes more than 8,000 deaths from stroke every year. 
  • Stick to a Diabetes-Friendly Diet: Maintaining a diet that keeps your blood sugar at a healthy range can help reduce the buildup of plaque in the arteries, lowering your risk of stroke. A nutritious diet can also help with weight loss or help you maintain a healthy weight, which can lower your risk of stroke. 
  • Exercise Regularly: Making physical activity a part of your routine can help reduce the amount of fatty buildup in the arteries, as well as stabilize blood sugar levels, and lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. Exercising regularly can also help you lose weight, as obesity is a major risk factor for stroke.  10, 11, 12

Learn More About the Impact of Blood Sugar on Overall Health With Signos’ Expert Advice

Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is vital for your whole-body health. Not only does it help you prevent diabetes or help you manage it if you already live with the condition, but it can also lower your risk for many other serious health complications, including stroke and heart attack. 

Sticking to a nutritious diet and exercising regularly are key ways to help balance your blood glucose, and a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) like Signos can help you fine-tune your efforts even further. A CGM keeps track of your blood sugar levels throughout the day and gives you insight into what affects your blood glucose levels the most so you can tinker with your healthy habits based on what's working for you. To learn more about blood sugar-related medical conditions and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, check out Signos’ blog.

Ready to try CGMs? Take this quick quiz to find out if Signos is right for you.

Discover how to live well with diabetes with the help of Signos wearable CGM.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="diabetes-weight-loss">Explaining the Correlation Between Diabetes and Weight Loss</a>.</p>

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About the author

April is a writer, editor, and content strategist with a Master’s degree in Publishing.

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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