Inflammation and Heart Disease

Understand the risks of inflammation

Although it is not proven that inflammation causes cardiovascular disease, scientists have determined/shown that statin medications, which have anti-inflammatory properties, could potentially help reduce atherosclerosis in patients with CVD. Researchers are still working on learning more, but recent clinical trials have shown that inflammation is not only a risk factor for CVD but also a treatable outcome to the disease. It’s important to know what inflammation is and what it can do to your heart.

Inflammation is a normal part of the body’s defense to injury or infection, and, in this way, it is beneficial. But inflammation is damaging when it occurs in healthy tissues or lasts too long —known as chronic inflammation. It may persist for months or years. 

Similarly, for the cardiovascular system, risk factors such as cigarette smoking, high blood pressure and LDL (bad) cholesterol can "injure" the heart by causing a buildup of atherosclerosis, a plaque made up of fatty deposits. This plaque buildup in the inner walls of arteries narrows the arteries and increases the risk they’ll become blocked. Our bodies respond to this problem by sending immune cells to the site where the plaque is building up.

The role of inflammation in heart attack and stroke

Scientists are still working to understand why the body responds to injuries in the heart muscle this way. Exactly how inflammation plays a role in heart attack and stroke remains a topic of ongoing research.

As the body’s immune system responds to atherosclerosis, it sends enzymes and cells to try and wall off the plaque to limit its interaction with the blood stream. However, this can go awry in a couple of ways. The area can become larger from the buildup of cells and enzymes. Or, the atherosclerosis can burst, creating blood clots.

An artery to the heart that’s blocked by a blood clot, or by an inflamed portion of plaque itself, causes a heart attack. A blocked artery in or leading to the brain causes an ischemic stroke.
Researchers still need to pinpoint where in the body the CVD-contributing inflammation that contributes even occurs. Everyone’s immune system is different, too, so scientists also need to investigate how the cells and molecules involved differ from person to person.

Cholesterol-lowering medications called statins appear to reduce arterial inflammation, but whether that’s from cholesterol reduction or something else is being debated. 

Either way, it is critical to control the risk factors, such as cigarette smoking, high blood pressure and LDL (bad) cholesterol, that can lead to inflammation. Learn more about the key factors and behaviors to avoiding heart disease and stroke risks – what the American Heart Association calls Life’s Essential 8™; – and what you can do to live a healthier lifestyle.