Inflammatory Bowel Disease May Be Risk Factor for Heart Disease

Older man suffering abdominal pain

Inflammation is part of a complex process by which the body responds to injury, irritants or damaged cells in an attempt to eliminate the threat and begin to repair the affected tissue. It can occur anywhere in the body and is a function of the immune system.

When inflammation persists in the gastrointestinal tract, it can lead to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. IBD can lead to debilitating symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal cramps, rectal bleeding, fatigue, anemia and weight loss. It may also be associated with eye, skin, bone and joint disorders. And, most recently, some research suggests that IBD may also put people at higher risk for heart attacks.

University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute researchers Muhammad Panhwar, MD, and Mahazarin Ginwalla, MD, MS, recently concluded a study of more than 22 million patients that supports a connection between IBD and heart disease. One of the largest studies of its kind, the data suggests that people with IBD have about 23 percent higher odds of having a heart attack. The study also found that traditional risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking were also more prevalent in patients with IBD.

This may be due to the chronic inflammation with intermittent flare-ups in people with autoimmune diseases such as IBD that may cause damage to the walls of their arteries. This damage and inflammation alone, or in combination with plaque deposits, can cause narrowing of the coronary arteries and, potentially, lead to a heart attack.

“Our study adds considerably to a growing set of literature highlighting the chronic inflammation in IBD as having a role in the development of cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Ginwalla, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and the senior author of the study. “Clinicians caring for IBD patients should recognize IBD as a cardiovascular risk factor. These patients should have their risk factors treated aggressively and any cardiovascular complaints should be evaluated appropriately,” she adds.

Dr. Panhwar, first author of the study, hopes that these findings will empower people with IBD to have conversations with their doctor about their personal risk of cardiovascular disease and work to manage their condition. Recommended lifestyle modifications may include controlling stress levels, eating a healthy diet and getting moderate exercise. And, given that smoking is a major risk factor for IBD patients, those who smoke should make every attempt to kick the habit.

Related links

Learn more about inflammatory bowel disease
Dietary recommendations for patients with IBD
Heart & Vascular services at University Hospitals

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