One in 10 Americans has diabetes and, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the condition is on a gallop. A person develops diabetes when their pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar, or when their body can’t effectively use the insulin it does produce.

High blood sugar can lead to serious damage to several different organs in your body over time — including the heart, kidneys, eyes, as well as the nervous system. In fact, diabetes and insulin resistance appear to be the strongest triggers in the onset of premature coronary disease (CHD) in women 55 years or younger, according to a new study.

Other risk factors also affect the risk of heart disease in younger women, but none were as striking as diabetes.

Researchers looked at more than 50 risk factors in over 28,000 women who were part of the decades-long Women’s Health Study. They reviewed approximately 50 biomarkers linked to cardiovascular disease such as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) — “bad cholesterol” — and a new metric for measuring insulin resistance called LPIR or lipoprotein insulin resistance, a weighted combination of six lipoprotein measures related to the concentration and size of high- and low-density lipoproteins and triglycerides.

While high markers for LDL cholesterol were associated with a 40 percent increase in CHD risk for women 55 years and under, the researchers, from Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Mayo Clinic and Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences, found a high LPIR reading was associated with a whopping 600 percent increase. What does this mean? “In otherwise healthy women, insulin resistance type-diabetes … is a major contributor to coronary events,” explained Samia Mora, a co-author of the study, in a statement. Coronary events are considered any incident that causes damage to your heart muscle.

Other risk factors also affect heart disease but none were as striking as diabetes. “Women under 55 who have obesity had about a four-fold increased risk for coronary events, as did women in that age group who smoked or had hypertension. Physical inactivity and family history are all part of the picture as well,” said Mora, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Diabetes is the biggest contributor to heart problems among women in this age group. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way; in many cases the disease is preventable. Several lifestyle changes can help to reduce the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease or reduce their effects. They include:

  • Controlling your weight.
  • Getting regular physical exercise.
  • Not smoking.
  • Maintaining optimal control over glucose (blood sugar).
  • Lowering your LDL cholesterol by reducing saturated fats found primarily in red meat and full-fat dairy products.
  • Eliminating trans fats (found in processed foods) from your diet.
  • Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids found in fish such as salmon, herring, sardines and oysters.
  • Increasing your intake of high fiber foods such as dried beans, oats, strawberries, apples and rice bran.
  • If you’re having difficulty making lifestyle changes, speak with your health care provider or a registered dietitian. He or she can offer suggestions. Or check out for guidelines and resources.

    The study is published in JAMA Cardiology.