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Lupe Barraza tried for years to make healthier choices managing her diabetes. Now she’s sharing how she took control of her health and happiness and started living her best life. Photography courtesy of Lupe Barraza
  • Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death for people with type 2 diabetes.
  • Know Diabetes by Heart is an initiative to educate people about the connection between diabetes and heart health.
  • There are ways to manage type 2 diabetes and improve heart health.

In the beginning of 2016, Lupe Barraza, woke up every day with tingling in her hands and feet.

“I couldn’t make a fist it was so painful,” Barraza told Healthline.

She was also losing hair, and gained 70 pounds within a few years. During this time, she was living under stress with her abusive second husband in Houston, Texas.

“My environment got dangerous being away from my family in Dallas. … My stress levels were [through] the roof,” Barraza said.

By spring, she summoned the courage to see a doctor. Barraza learned her glucose levels were in the upper 300s, and that she had type 2 diabetes.

“After being diagnosed, I tried to change my diet and to walk. I did lose about 20 pounds, but it seemed threatening to my husband — feeling good about myself and health — and I reverted back to old habits. My self-esteem wasn’t good,” Barraza said.

The up-and-down battle with her health was familiar to Barraza. In 2009, she learned she was prediabetic.

“I knew it was imminent because my father is the youngest of 13 and about 80 percent of them struggled with type 2 diabetes, and the majority of them passed away from type 2 and heart disease. [My dad] was diagnosed when he was in his 40s,” Barraza said.

The American Diabetes Association states that people who have an immediate family member with type 2 diabetes have a greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes themselves due to genetic factors, as well as lifestyle choices, such as exercise, eating habits, and stress.

Knowing this, Barraza worked hard to break from her family history. In 2009, she began running and changing her diet. Between 2010 and 2012, she built up stamina to run 10 marathons and two ultramarathons.

“I was in [the] best shape of my life. I had gone back to school and finished my bachelor’s, master’s, and CPA,” Barraza said. “But unfortunately the strains of my [first] marriage didn’t survive. In the spring of 2012, I was divorced and lost myself.”

From 2012 to 2019, Barraza said she was in survival mode physically and emotionally.

“My mother had a stroke in March 2019 that woke [me] up to the reality of my health. I wasn’t feeling well and was so heavy. I knew [I was] smart and had a great career, but [I was] living in hell and dying,” she said.

Barraza decided to take control of her health for the sake of her six children.

“I used my mom’s health to move back home and get away from my husband. The day I was moving things into storage, I got a call that my dad had a heart attack and we were told he had a 10 percent chance of survival,” Barraza said.

While her dad made it out of the hospital, long-term damage from type 2 diabetes caused him to endure a series of amputations, including his toes, parts of his feet, and left leg.

“Seeing him and having to make decisions with my brothers is not something I want for my kids, so I got angry at myself because I knew better. I started to position myself first mentally [for change],” she said.

In June 2019, she bought a house close to her mom and left her second husband. Once she settled, she found a doctor she trusted and started reconnecting with friends.

“They are my tribe of very strong, intelligent, successful women. … Being a mom and working professional and having a support system from my doctor to people around me, gave me the confidence I needed,” Barraza said.

As she gained confidence, she also built self-worth. In September 2019, she started walking again during her lunch breaks.

“I couldn’t run a mile, and 9 years prior I was running 6 miles every morning. … I slowly changed my diet. I knew how to eat and how to be well I just didn’t have the courage and energy to do it [until then],” she said.

By February 2020, Barraza was able to handle walk/run intervals and eventually increased her pace to jogging and running. Today, at 45 years old, she runs 100 miles a month and is signed up for a “comeback marathon” in May 2021.

“I just ran my 18-mile training run this past Saturday and that’s my marker,” Barraza said.

She also dropped her A1C from 11.5 to 5.4, cut her medication dose by half, lowered her blood pressure, and lost 65 pounds.

“Once I started getting that serotonin high [from exercising], it helped my mentality and made me happy again. My skin is better. My smile is better. My whole person is completely different,” Barraza said.

To encourage other women to take control of their health, Barraza is taking part in Know Diabetes by Heart, a joint effort from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association, to reduce cardiovascular disease and death in people living with type 2 diabetes.

“My message is that … we have control and choices,” Barraza said. “Looking at myself and my mom and older generations, we put everyone first and we don’t take the time to remember that if we don’t take care of ourselves, then we won’t be there for everyone else. That’s the story for so many women from so many different cultures.”

By sharing her story, Barraza hopes to inspire other women to learn about the connection between type 2 diabetes and heart health.

“Cardiovascular diseases — heart disease and stroke — are the leading cause of death for people with type 2 diabetes, but the link isn’t always made or well understood by people with type 2 diabetes,” registered nurse Teri L. Hernandez, PhD, associate dean for research and scholarship at the University of Colorado College of Nursing, told Healthline.

As a volunteer for Know Diabetes by Heart, Hernandez said a survey commissioned by the initiative revealed that about half of those with type 2 diabetes age 45 and older understand their increased risk or have discussed it with their doctor.

The risks of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke are increased when blood sugar isn’t controlled in those with diabetes, said Dr. Genevieve Lama, endocrinologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Hudson Valley.

However, numerous trials haven’t shown a reduction in cardiovascular problems with improvement in blood sugar control alone, she said.

“This means that there is more to diabetes cardiovascular disease than controlling blood sugar,” Lama told Healthline.

The good news, she said, is that there are ways to reduce your risk, including the following:

  • Staying active with at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking, dancing, yoga, or recreational swimming, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, such as jogging, running, playing tennis, or biking.
  • Eating a balanced diet focused on vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, and lean animal/fish protein.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight determined by your doctor.
  • Limiting sodium to less than 1500 mg daily.
  • Limiting alcohol to 2 or fewer drinks daily in men or at most 1 drink daily in women.
  • Controlling blood pressure with a goal of less than 130/80 in most cases.
  • Avoiding tobacco use.

For those who have a history of heart attack, vascular bypass, stroke, leg vascular disease, or angina, Lama said to talk with your doctor about taking aspirin.

“Your doctor can decide if you are at high risk of bleeding in which case aspirin would not be advised,” she said. “In those at high risk for cardiovascular disease with 10-year risk over 10 percent (your doctor can calculate this risk using a risk calculator algorithm that the American Heart Association helped design), aspirin is also advised if you are not at high risk for internal bleeding.”

Lama said a doctor may recommend taking a statin to the following:

  • most people with diabetes aged 40 to 75
  • some people under 40 and over 75 based on risk factors, such as smoking, lipid levels, and more

Managing type 2 diabetes is possible, and although it may be part of your story, Hernandez said it’s not an ending to your story.

“There are so many new ways to help you manage your type 2 diabetes. My advice is to learn as much as you can, talk to your health care provider about managing your risk for heart disease and stroke, and surround yourself with supportive people,” she said.