Can psoriasis increase my chances of a heart attack?

Psoriasis often manifests in red, inflamed skin at the nape of the neck. See more pictures of skin problems.
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Since being diagnosed with psoriasis, you've been coping with a painful, itchy and bothersome skin condition. But now, news reports may have you wondering whether psoriasis can increase your chances of a heart attack.

First, let's ensure we understand what psoriasis is. This recurring disease can strike children or adults, and approximately 2 to 3 percent -- about 7.5 million -- of Americans have it [source: Laino]. Some people have a few small 0.13-inch (0.32-centimeter) dots on their scalp, and others may have red, inflamed skin with silvery scales covering the entire area from the hairline to the nape of the neck. Still others may have rough, crusty buildup on the elbows, knees or back. As we see, forms of manifestation vary widely.

For centuries, people likened psoriasis to leprosy (probably because of its appearance) and considered it contagious [source: Wolff]. Over time, studies proved you couldn't catch psoriasis from someone else. Since the medical community once believed that psoriasis was a skin disorder, dermatologists have typically helped patients keep it under control. But recent research is shifting that opinion and suggesting that the disease may be more than skin deep. Although psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder, some experts believe it's also a systemic inflammatory disease, which affects the circulatory system and the heart.

No one knows exactly what causes psoriasis, but researchers have discovered that something goes awry with the body's immune system, and certain white blood cells called T-cells get dispatched to various layers of the skin, which can cause redness and swelling. This finding highlighted an interesting link between psoriasis and inflammation, prompting a number of pharmaceutical companies throughout the world to investigate whether psoriasis may lead to a heart attack. Here's what they report. An autoimmune response -- similar to the one responsible for psoriasis -- sends out T-cells to attack the circulatory system, causing inflammation that leads to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries (an effect that's typically brought on from practicing a high-cholesterol diet). As you may know, hardening of the arteries increases the chance of a heart attack, which is why someone who has psoriasis may be concerned about life-threatening complications from the disease.

But lifestyle habits as well as genetics influence both psoriasis and heart disease. Learn what you can do to control related health risk factors on the next page.

Lifestyle Choices and Psoriasis

Even if psoriasis runs in your family, there's no need wait in fear for an inevitable heart attack. Yes, learning that psoriasis might lead to a heart attack can be downright disturbing. But you should note that the studies exploring the possible link between psoriasis and heart attack were funded by drug manufacturers. Some of them say they've come up with a single medication that simultaneously treats psoriasis and atherosclerosis, which leads some to question the motive behind their reports. What's more, it's in your power to make healthy lifestyle choices that will help you deal with psoriasis and the risk of heart attack. Doctors advise those who have psoriasis not to stress over its potential link to heart attack but rather focus on the factors they can control.

Making smart lifestyle choices can keep psoriasis and heart disease in check. These factors can aggravate psoriasis and lead to a heart attack, both in psoriasis patients and those who do not have the disease:

  • a history of nicotine use
  • heavy drinking
  • being overweight
  • high blood pressure
  • elevated cholesterol levels
  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • stress

[source: American Academy of Dermatology]

Medical researchers have discovered quite a bit of information about psoriasis and heart attack. One found that mild psoriasis doesn't often lead to an increased risk of heart attack, but patients with moderate to severe psoriasis are at greater risk [source: Mundell]. Another study determined that people with psoriasis under age 40 are at an even greater risk of dying from a condition associated with heart disease -- their risk is 162 percent higher than those without psoriasis [source: Petty]. Researchers are also exploring the relationship between psoriasis and an array of other diseases like lupus and diabetes, which can also be fatal.

As we learned earlier, psoriasis was considered merely a skin condition in the past, which may make it difficult for some people with psoriasis to get the help they need treating co-existing conditions. Since many patients consider psoriasis a skin disease, they depend on their dermatologists quite a bit -- even for advice that a primary care doctor would normally provide. But using a dermatologist as a one-stop shop for medical care makes it difficult for people to get the most appropriate treatment for conditions that are usually treated by other types of doctors, like those specializing in cardiology [source: Collins].

Find out about treatments for psoriasis that may help combat the risk of heart attack in the next section.

Seeking Professional Help for Psoriasis

In Kangal, Turkey, psoriasis patients seek relief in mineral-rich springs laden with gara ruffa obtusa, or "doctor fish." These fish eat away at diseased skin.
In Kangal, Turkey, psoriasis patients seek relief in mineral-rich springs laden with gara ruffa obtusa, or "doctor fish." These fish eat away at diseased skin.
Ed Ou/Getty Images

Those with psoriasis should consult with their family doctor or cardiologist to find out more about reducing their risk of a heart attack. Physicians may recommend tests to get a clearer picture of what's going on inside the body and help patients create the best action plan to combat heart disease. Doctors will advise a combination of a nutritious diet and regular exercise to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Seeking the help of health professionals can also help people manage stress as well as deal with any addictions, such as dependency on alcohol or tobacco.

Making good lifestyle choices to promote heart health also helps manage psoriasis. From the previous section, recall that smoking cigarettes, experiencing stress and becoming overweight can ignite the onset of psoriasis. Eliminating these risks can minimize flare-ups and even keep psoriasis in remission [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

You can also control psoriasis through medication. Various drugs are available to treat this condition, including pills and capsules and an injection that your doctor administers about every three months. Methotrexate, a drug that doctors commonly prescribe for psoriasis, is currently being evaluated for its ability to control heart disease. Methotrexate can minimize the incidence of vascular disease in some cases; in fact, experts say that taking folic acid with methotrexate lowers a person's risk for vascular disease by 50 percent [source: Collins].

There's additional research into whether cholesterol treatments can help treat psoriasis. One study found that statins -- drugs that reduce cholesterol levels in the blood -- may alleviate psoriasis [source Laino]. One of the things that statins do is reduce inflammation. This category of drugs is credited with lowering the risk of diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer and some forms of arthritis.

Although opinions vary on how the conditions are related, experts agree that sensible lifestyle choices greatly reduce chances of a heart attack and systemic diseases like psoriasis.

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Sources

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