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How High Blood Sugar Levels Affect Lungs and Heart

diabetes, type 2 diabetes, complications, heart disease, ferroelectricity

One complication of diabetes is heart disease, as patients with chronically high blood sugar are at greater risk for high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. Recent research has uncovered a new reason to keep blood sugar in check. The damaging effects can impede our ability to breathe properly and pump blood through the body.

Researchers with the University of Washington and Boston University have discovered that elastin, a type of protein found in organs such as the heart and lungs that help the tissue stretch and retract, is the source for an electrical property known as ferroelectricity, the ability of a molecule to switch charges from positive to negative. When exposed to sugar, some of the proteins can no longer perform their function, leading to a hardening of those tissues and ultimately the degrading of an artery or ligament.

"This finding is important because it tells us the origin of the ferroelectric switching phenomenon and also suggests it's not an isolated occurrence in one type of tissue as we thought," said co-corresponding author Jiangyu Li, a UW associate professor of mechanical engineering. "This could be associated with aging and diabetes, which I think gives more importance to the phenomenon."

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Li and a team of researchers studied the property in animal tissue elastin and found that when the protein is treated with sugar, ferroelectricity was suppressed by up to 50%. This was particularly important in the major blood vessel that carries blood to the heart, the aorta. The interaction between sugar and protein, known as glycation, happens naturally when we age, but is also associated with diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis.

This new research adds to past research linking diabetic patients with a higher risk of coronary artery disease, the most common form of heart disease. When blood vessels become damaged, they can become partially or totally blocked by fatty deposits. A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart is suddenly reduced or cut off. A stroke occurs when blocked blood vessels cannot carry blood and oxygen to the brain.

Patients with diabetes – or prediabetes, a condition that also results in elevated blood sugar – should work closely with their healthcare provider on how to properly monitor blood sugar levels, manage diet and exercise, and control risk factors that can lead to heart disease.

The American Diabetes Association offers and online diabetes management program called Diabetes 24/7. Here, patients have access to tools to monitor diabetes and track data such as blood glucose, A1C (a long-term measure of glucose control), blood pressure, cholesterol, physical activity, weight, and medications. Visit diabetes.org for more information.

Journal Reference:
Yuanming Liu, Yunjie Wang, Ming-Jay Chow, Nataly Q. Chen, Feiyue Ma, Yanhang Zhang, and Jiangyu Li. Glucose suppresses biological ferroelectricity in aortic elastin.Physical Review Letters, 2013 [link]



An A1C test, also known as a glycated hebomlogin test, isn't used for diagnosing prediabetes or diabetes. Instead, it gauges how well you're managing your diabetes.Unlike a fasting blood glucose test or a daily finger stick, both of which measure your blood sugar level at a given time, the A1C test reflects your average blood sugar level for the past two to three months. Test results show what percentage of your hebomlogin — a protein found in red blood cells — is sugar coated (glycated).
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