Chronic Inflammatory Diseases Vary Widely in CHD Risk

Bruce Jancin

November 16, 2020

Not all chronic systemic inflammatory diseases are equal enhancers of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk, according to a large case-control study.

Current AHA/American College of Cardiology guidelines cite three chronic inflammatory diseases as atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk enhancers: rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and HIV infection. But this study of those three diseases, along with three others marked by elevated high sensitivity C-reactive protein (systemic sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and systemic lupus erythematosus [SLE]), showed that chronic inflammatory diseases are not monolithic in terms of their associated risk of incident coronary heart disease (CHD).

Indeed, two of the six inflammatory diseases – psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease – turned out to be not at all associated with increased cardiovascular risk in the 37,117-patient study. The highest-risk disease was SLE, not specifically mentioned in the guidelines, Arjun Sinha, MD, a cardiology fellow at Northwestern University, Chicago, noted in his presentation at the virtual American Heart Association scientific sessions.

The study included 18,129 patients with one of the six chronic inflammatory diseases and 18,988 matched controls, none with CHD at baseline. All regularly received outpatient care at Northwestern during 2000-2019. There were 1,011 incident CHD events during a median of 3.5 years of follow-up.

In a Cox proportional hazards analysis adjusted for demographics, insurance status, hypertension, diabetes, current smoking, total cholesterol, and estimated glomerular filtration rate, here's how the chronic inflammatory diseases stacked up in terms of incident CHD and MI risks:

  • SLE: hazard ratio for CHD, 2.85; for MI, 4.76.

  • Systemic sclerosis: HR for CHD, 2.14; for MI, 3.19.

  • HIV: HR for CHD, 1.38; for MI, 1.69.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: HR for CHD, 1.22; for MI, 1.45.

  • Psoriasis: no significant increase.

  • Inflammatory bowel disease: no significant increase.

In an exploratory analysis, Sinha and coinvestigators evaluated the risk of incident CHD stratified by disease severity. For lack of standardized disease severity scales, the investigators relied upon tertiles of CD4 T cell count in the HIV group and CRP in the others. The HR for new-onset CHD in the more than 5,000 patients with psoriasis didn't vary by CRP tertile. However, there was a nonsignificant trend for greater disease severity, as reflected by CRP tertile, to be associated with increased incident CHD risk in the HIV and inflammatory bowel disease groups.

In contrast, patients with rheumatoid arthritis or systemic sclerosis who were in the top CRP tertile had a significantly greater risk of developing CHD than that of controls, with HRs of 2.11 in the rheumatoid arthritis group and 4.59 with systemic sclerosis, although patients in the other two tertiles weren't at significantly increased risk. But all three tertiles of CRP in patients with SLE were associated with significantly increased CHD risk: 3.17-fold in the lowest tertile of lupus severity, 5.38-fold in the middle tertile, and 4.04-fold in the top tertile for inflammation.

These findings could be used in clinical practice to fine-tune atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk assessment based upon chronic inflammatory disease type and severity. That's information which in turn can help guide the timing and intensity of preventive therapy for patients with each disease type.

But studying the association between chronic systemic inflammatory diseases and CHD risk can be useful in additional ways, according to Sinha. These inflammatory diseases can serve as models of atherosclerosis that shed light on the non–lipid-related mechanisms involved in cardiovascular disease.

"The gradient in risk may be hypothesis-generating with respect to which specific inflammatory pathways may contribute to CHD," he explained.

Each of these six chronic inflammatory diseases is characterized by a different form of major immune dysfunction, Sinha continued. A case in point is SLE, the inflammatory disease associated with the highest risk of CHD and MI. Lupus is characterized by a form of neutrophil dysfunction marked by increased formation and reduced degradation of neutrophil extracellular traps, or NETs, as well as by an increase in autoreactive B cells and dysfunctional CD4+ T helper cells. The increase in NETs of of particular interest because NETs have also been shown to contribute to the development of atherosclerosis, endothelial dysfunction, plaque erosion, and thrombosis.

In another exploratory analysis, Sinha and coworkers found that SLE patients with a neutrophil count above the median level were twice as likely to develop CHD than were those with a neutrophil count below the median.

A better understanding of the upstream pathways linking NET formation in SLE and atherosclerosis could lead to development of new or repurposed medications that target immune dysfunction in order to curb atherosclerosis, said Sinha, whose study won the AHA's Samuel A. Levine Early Career Clinical Investigator Award.

He reported having no financial conflicts regarding his study.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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