Chronic Inflammation: America’s Deadliest Disease

Inflammation is one of your body’s most important defense mechanisms, protecting you against infection and injury. But inflammation that is prolonged may be setting you up for numerous health problems.

“It’s remarkable how well the body protects us from infections, injuries and environmental stresses,” interventional cardiologist David Zidar, MD, PhD, says.

For instance, if you're sunburned, swollen after an injury or bitten by an insect, you might experience inflammation. This is good and means your body is taking care of itself.

“But immune systems can become maladaptive, leading to diseases clearly caused by your system’s overreach,” Dr. Zidar says. In worst-case scenarios, you develop chronic inflammation. This happens when your body’s immune system misinterprets healthy tissue as abnormal and turns on itself to attack this tissue.

Inflammation Can Lead to Health Concerns

This can lead to serious conditions, Dr. Zidar says, such as:

  • Digestive problems
  • Diabetes
  • Nervous system disorders
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Strokes
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Some cancers
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lupus
  • Fibromyalgia

While researchers don’t completely understand everything about prolonged inflammatory responses, they’ve uncovered enough information to link chronic inflammation to high-fat foods and excess body weight. An important recent discovery relates to how fat tissue – particularly around the abdomen and organs – can cause problems. It appears now that these fat cells produce molecules (cytokines) that lead to inflammation.

“We are starting to recognize that body fat, or adipose tissue, is capable of producing inflammatory mediators,” Dr. Zidar says. “To some extent, fat tissue can act almost as immune cells, producing factors that alert the body to potential dangers. But whether that is good or bad is not yet clear. Does fat tissue protect us or put us at greater risk? In some cases, it’s probably a mixture.”

How to Guard Against Inflammation

Meanwhile, an internal war goes on within your bodies, but you can launch pre-emptive strikes, Dr. Zidar says.

“There are many aspects to heart and blood vessel disease that we still don’t understand,” he says. “But remember, the basics are still the basics. Good nutrition and exercise. These will protect the heart, blood vessels and other organs.”

David Zidar, MD, PhD is an interventional cardiologist with University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute.

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