In a medical version of the “unified field” theory in physics, many scientists now believe that most—or perhaps all—chronic diseases may have the same trigger: inflammation. Studies have linked this fiery process to a wide range of disorders, from heart attacks and strokes to type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain, and even cancer.
Here is a look at six recent discoveries highlighting the effects of chronic inflammation on physical and mental health. This research could lead to improved strategies to help prevent chronic disease, improve treatment, and more accurately identify which patients are at highest risk for developing these conditions.
- Pneumonia may raise cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk as much as smoking. Patients hospitalized for pneumonia are up to four times more likely to develop CVD in the next 30 days than people of the same age without the lung infection, according to a new study published in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The study, which included nearly 1,300 pneumonia patients, highlights the role of systemic inflammation sparked by infections, obesity, diabetes, smoking and other factors as an important contributor to CVD, says Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Michael Amalfitano, DO. “All of these cause inflammatory damage, which promotes narrowing of blood vessels and unstable plaque that can rupture and cause a life-threatening heart attack.”
- A flu shot may be also a vaccine against heart attack and stroke. In a recent meta-analysis that pooled data from studies of 6,735 men and women (average age, 67), those who received a flu vaccination were about 55% less likely to suffer a cardiac event, even if they had recently suffered a heart attack or stroke, and had 36 percent lower risk for heart disease, stroke, heart failure or death from cardiac causes., compared to people who got a placebo injection or nothing. Inflammation from influenza may contribute to formation of “vulnerable plaque” in the arteries, which could lead to a heart attack or ischemic stroke, suggests lead author Jacob Udell.
- Clinical depression is linked to a 30 percent rise in brain inflammation. The research, published in JAMA Psychiatry, could lead to new treatments–and new hope for patients, given that more than half of people with major depression do not respond to antidepressants. Researchers from Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada compared brain PET scans from 20 people with depression and 20 healthy control patients. Those with the mood disorder had significantly higher levels of inflammation, with the highest levels found in those with the worst depression. The study adds to growing evidence that inflammation plays a role in triggering such symptoms of a major depressive episode as loss of appetite, low mood, and trouble sleeping.
- Severe gum disease may raise risk for massive heart attacks. A pioneering study published in Journal of Dental Research is the first to demonstrate that the extent and severity of chronic periodontitis (inflammatory gum disease that can lead to gradual tooth loss) is directly linked to severity of acute myocardial infarction. Researchers from University of Grenada analyzed data from 112 heart attack patients and found a significant correlation between more extensive heart damage (measured by biomarkers of myocardial tissue death) and more severe gum disease, even when potential cofounding factors were taken into account. While the findings need to be confirmed with further research, “chronic periodontitis appears as a death risk factor and it plays an important role in the prognosis of acute myocardial infarction,” stated study author Francisco Aguado.
- Measuring brain inflammation could be a new, objective way to measure patients’ pain levels. About 76 million Americans have suffered from chronic pain at some point in their lives, but doctors lack a standardized scale to measure it. A new study may help solve this problem. When researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital compared PET scans of chronic pain patients and healthy controls, they found significantly elevated levels of an inflammation-linked protein in the pain patients, compared to pain-free control patients. There was also a correlation between protein levels and the severity of pain. Not only might this discovery help evaluate the magnitude of patients’ pain, but it could also lead to new treatments, such as drugs targeting this protein. The study, which included 44 patients, was published in the journal Brain.
- A tasty spice may fight inflammation in people with heart attack and diabetes risk factors. A randomized, controlled clinical trial found that taking curcumin supplements may reduce inflammation in people with metabolic syndrome (a dangerous cluster of heart attack and diabetes risk factors, such as a large waistline, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high triglycerides). The 117 participants either took curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric, the yellow spice in curry) daily or a placebo. After 8 weeks, the curcumin group had improved levels of three inflammatory biomarkers, fasting blood sugar and hemoglobin AIC. The researchers note that most reported benefits of curcumin in previous studies occurred when it was added to a standard drug therapy regiment. Patients should not change their medical treatment or take new supplements without consulting their medical provider.