The 3 million Americans with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease often have severe diarrhea and stomach pain, lose weight, and feel tired. They may sometimes develop blockages in their bowels or have trouble digesting food, which can put their very lives at risk.
On top of all that, new research presented recently at the American College of Cardiology Annual Scientific Sessions, shows these patients also face an increased risk of heart attack. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, used a large database of more than 17 million patients enrolled in 26 different healthcare systems to discover the link. In the adults ages 18 to 65 with known IBD, they looked at how many of them had heart attacks compared to those without this medical problem..
Compared to people who didn’t have IBD, those with IBD had heart attacks about twice as often. Overall IBD patients had a 23 percent higher risk for having a heart attack.
The high risk remained even after researchers allowed for risk factors commonly found in patients who have heart attacks. These include high cholesterol, diabetes, a smoking habit, or high blood pressure.
The threat of a heart attack was greatest in young adults between the ages of 18 and 24. IBD patients in this age range had an alarming 9 times greater risk for heart attacks than healthy people. And women under age 40 with IBD had a higher heart attack risk than male patients the same age. The risk was lower as patients got older.
What is the connection between IBD and heart attacks? The authors of this study suggest that it’s most likely inflammation.
With IBD, the body has an abnormal defense, or immune, system. When viruses and bacteria enter, this can lead to an overreaction, which creates chronic inflammation in the digestive system. The same kind of inflammation may be at the root of heart disease and heart attacks.
The new findings suggest that people with IBD should have their doctors look for risk factors and/or the presence of heart disease even if they are young adults. Making healthy choices to reduce the risk of heart attacks should also be done early in life. These include:
- Regular exercise (30 minutes of moderate activity such as walking at least 5 days a week or, if your doctor approves, 25 minutes of intense activity 3 times a week).
- A Mediterranean-style, heart-healthy diet, along with avoiding foods that may cause IBD symptoms.
- A healthy weight.
- Not smoking.
Patients, particularly women under age 40, should know the symptoms of heart attacks and seek help immediatelyif they occur. And consider other tools for uncovering hidden inflammation, including tests offered by Cleveland HeartLab/Quest..(You can learn more about inflammation tests and the science of inflammation here.)
With good health habits and monitoring, people with IBD can live their lives with less worry and with a better chance of avoiding a dangerous heart problem or stroke.