Autoimmune diseases increase risk of cardiovascular disease, study shows

People with autoimmune diseases run a significantly higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases than people who do not have autoimmune diseases, according to a large-scale population study led by KU Leuven that was published on Saturday. The increased risk particularly affects younger patients.

About ten percent of people living in prosperous regions such as Europe and the United States suffer from one or more autoimmune diseases. Examples of such autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system perceives the body's own cells and substances as foreign, include rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, systemic sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes. Previous research has shown that some of these conditions are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, but these studies were too small to draw any definitive conclusions about the need for cardiovascular disease prevention in patients with autoimmune diseases. 

That is why an international research team started a large-scale study in which they examined possible links between 19 of the most common autoimmune diseases and cardiovascular disease. They used anonymised data from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink in the United Kingdom, which contains records of 22 million patients or about a fifth of the current British population. 

The results show that the risk of developing cardiovascular disease is on average 1.56 times higher in patients with autoimmune diseases than in those without. The risk also increases in line with the number of different autoimmune diseases patients suffer from. Systemic sclerosis, Addison's disease, lupus and type 1 diabetes are among the conditions with the highest risk. 

The researchers also showed that the group of nineteen autoimmune diseases is responsible for about six per cent of cardiovascular occurrences. The increased risk is present across the spectrum of cardiovascular diseases, ranging from more standard heart problems caused by narrowing of coronary arteries to infection-related heart disease, heart inflammation, clotting in the heart and blood vessels and degenerative heart disease. "The influence of autoimmunity on cardiovascular health thus appears to be much greater than originally thought," the research team states. 

The scientists also found that the additional risk is greatly increased in patients with autoimmune diseases who are younger than 55 years old. This seems to indicate that autoimmune diseases play a particularly large role in causing premature cardiovascular disease, leading to increased disability and a disproportionate loss of life years, according to the researchers.

The research results have been published in the scientific journal The Lancet and will be presented at the annual congress of the European Society of Cardiology this weekend.



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