The link between inflammation and heart disease

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Inflammation is a natural process that helps the body fight off infections and heal injuries. However, when inflammation becomes chronic, it can play a role in various diseases, including heart disease.

This review explores how inflammation contributes to heart disease and what research says about managing it.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide, and researchers have discovered that inflammation is a key factor in the development and progression of this condition.

Unlike the short-term inflammation that follows a cut or infection, chronic inflammation can damage the body’s organs and tissues over time.

In the heart, this prolonged inflammatory response is linked to the development of atherosclerosis, a condition where plaque builds up in the arteries, making them narrower and less flexible.

Atherosclerosis begins when tiny damages occur to the endothelium, the inner lining of the arteries. Factors like high blood pressure, smoking, or high cholesterol can cause these small injuries.

The body reacts to these injuries with an inflammatory response, sending immune cells to fix the damage. However, these cells can become trapped in the artery walls, attracting fats and other substances circulating in the blood.

This buildup forms plaque. Over time, the plaque can harden or rupture, leading to serious problems such as heart attacks or strokes.

Research has shown that people with high levels of inflammatory substances in their blood, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), have a higher risk of heart disease.

CRP levels rise in response to inflammation throughout the body, and high CRP levels have been associated with an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death from heart disease.

Statin therapy, widely known for its cholesterol-lowering effects, has also been shown to reduce CRP levels and inflammation, which may partly explain its benefits in reducing cardiovascular events.

Moreover, studies have highlighted the role of other inflammatory markers, like interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha, in heart disease.

These substances not only contribute to the initial development of atherosclerosis but also to the rupture of arterial plaques, which can lead to a heart attack.

Given the strong link between inflammation and heart disease, researchers are actively exploring anti-inflammatory treatments as a way to prevent heart attacks and strokes.

For example, the recent CANTOS trial investigated the use of a drug called canakinumab, which targets a specific part of the immune system involved in inflammation.

The study found that canakinumab reduced the risk of cardiovascular events in people who had previously suffered a heart attack and had high CRP levels, confirming that tackling inflammation can have cardiovascular benefits.

Lifestyle changes are also important in managing inflammation. Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish have been shown to reduce inflammation.

Regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress, and avoiding smoking can also lower levels of inflammatory substances in the blood.

In conclusion, inflammation plays a critical role in the development of heart disease, particularly through its involvement in atherosclerosis.

Understanding this connection is leading to new ways to treat and prevent heart disease, focusing not just on traditional risk factors like cholesterol and blood pressure, but also on reducing inflammation itself.

For individuals, this means that alongside traditional approaches, incorporating anti-inflammatory lifestyle changes can be a vital part of maintaining heart health.

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