Pneumonia May Raise Heart Disease Risk as Much as Smoking

Study highlights the role of inflammation
Pneumonia and Heart Disease Risk

Pneumonia may be as big a risk factor for heart disease as smoking or diabetes, especially in adults older than 65 who are hospitalized, a new study says.

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Researchers at the University of Ottawa began tracking the link among nearly 1,300 people who developed pneumonia during the course of the study. Participants ranged in age from 45 to older than 65. The researchers followed them for 10 years.

Results show hospitalization for pneumonia was associated with increased short-term and long-term risk of cardiovascular disease, especially for those age 65 and older.

Also, the risk appeared to be highest in the first year after hospitalization, but also remained higher than someone who hadn’t been hospitalized for pneumonia during the following 10 years.

Pneumonia is a bacterial infection of the lungs, says pulmonologist Neal Chaisson, MD. Dr. Chaisson did not participate in the study.

“Essentially, what happens is bacteria or viruses invade the sacs in your lungs. It’s like a cut that gets infected,” Dr. Chaisson says. ”The result is inflammation in the lungs.”

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The study highlights the role of inflammation, an important, mostly unexplored concept that heart disease researchers are aggressively pursuing, says cardiologist Michael Amalfitano, DO. Dr. Amalfitano did not participate in the University of Ottawa research.

Inflammation is a response in which the body tried to protect itself. The body tries to eliminate the initial cause of cell injury and begin repairs. But inflammation from a bacterial infection or other source also can damage the body, Dr. Amalfitano says.

Inflammation can occur in the lining of our coronary arteries in response to pneumonia or other infection, as well as known risks such as smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, Dr. Amalfitano says.

“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,” he says.

People over age 65 may have increased risk because of the greater likelihood of damage to the inside lining of blood vessels and plaque formation, Dr. Amalfitano says.

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Don’t wait

Dr. Chaisson says the results also point out the importance of getting pneumonia treated in a timely fashion.

“We treat pneumonia with antibiotics to kill off any bacterial infection,” he says. “Then we depend on the body’s immune system to clear up the lungs.”

Complete findings for the study, Association Between Hospitalization for Pneumonia and Subsequent Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, can be found in the online issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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