Unlocking the Mystery of Lupus: Lupus & the Heart FAQs

S.L.E. Lupus Foundation “Get into the Loop” NYC Hospital Tour, Public and Patient Education Department Program, November 3, 2005 Michael D. Lockshin, MD

What is lupus? Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), commonly called lupus, is a chronic autoimmune disorder that can affect virtually any organ of the body. In lupus, the body’s immune system, which normally functions to protect against foreign invaders, becomes hyperactive, forming antibodies that attack normal tissues and organs, including the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, heart, lungs, and blood. The disease is characterized by periods of illness, called flares, and periods of wellness, or remission. Because its symptoms come and go and mimic those of other diseases, lupus can be difficult to diagnose. There is no single laboratory test that can definitively prove that a person has this complex illness. Thankfully, awareness of lupus is increasing and is therefore more readily identified.

Who gets lupus? Lupus is estimated to affect nearly 1.5 million Americans. While it occurs in both sexes, 90 percent are women, and most are diagnosed during the childbearing years. African-American women are three times more likely to get the disease than Caucasian women, and they often suffer more severe disease. National Institutes of Health figures indicate that as many as one in every 250 African-American women has lupus. Lupus is also twice as prevalent in Asian-American and Hispanic women as it is among Caucasian women. Native American women are also disproportionately affected.

 How is lupus treated? While there is no cure for lupus, early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can help in managing the symptoms and lessening the chance of permanent damage to organs or tissues. Once a lupus diagnosis is established, an assessment is made of damage to major organs such as the brain, kidneys, heart, and lungs. Treatment strategies depend on the activity level and extent of the disease and can range from over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory drugs to prescription medications, psychotherapy, healthy diet changes, and lifestyle revisions such as staying out of the sun and avoiding stress.

How serious a threat does lupus pose to heart health? The cardiovascular system is a main target of lupus. It can directly weaken the heart by causing inflammation of the muscle itself (myocarditis) or its inner lining (endocarditis). But the most common heart involvement in people with lupus is inflammation in the sac around the heart (pericarditis), which causes shortness of breath and sharp chest pain. These complications are typically treated with powerful anti-inflammatory and immune system suppressants such as prednisone, a corticosteroid.

What about coronary artery disease? More than a third of people with lupus are at risk for this complication, primarily because inflammation and various immune system abnormalities cause the coronary arteries to rapidly harden, narrow, and clog, a condition called atherosclerosis. In time, clots can form or bits of plaque can break off from artery linings, interfering with blood flow to the heart and brain. Less common causes of coronary artery problems in people with lupus include inflammation of the artery walls, actual spasms of the arteries, and blood clots. The potential for problems forms a chilling picture, with female lupus patients 50 times more likely than their peers to have chest pain or a heart attack. (Less is known about the increased risk among the 1 in 10 men with lupus.)

But I’m still young, and I take pretty good care of myself. It appears that having lupus by itself means a person is more likely to develop coronary artery disease. Young women with lupus (under age 40) are nearly five times more likely to have this ailment than their same-age peers—regardless of whether they have other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, or excess weight. Over time, lessened blood and oxygen flow to the heart weaken the muscle. Bits of cholesterol can break off from artery linings, interfering with blood flow to the brain as well as the heart. Long-term use of corticosteroids can also cause harm.

What can I do to keep my heart healthy? See your doctor regularly and always mention new or changing symptoms, including chest pain or shortness of breath. Ask about other warning signs of a heart attack or stroke and what to do if they develop. The goal is to detect and treat lupus flares as early as possible, limit corticosteroid use (in a smart way, with the doctor’s approval), take measures to stop other heart-damaging factors (smoking, high blood pressure, excess weight), get regular exercise (even a 30-minute daily walk helps), and follow a healthy diet. Also key: a close working relationship between you and the doctor, including heart specialists (cardiologists). Some doctors put lupus patients with coronary artery disease on cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins.

Are certain people with lupus at particularly high risk for heart problems? Certain populations, such as black women, need to be particularly vigilant. Not only is heart disease the number one killer of all black women, but the death rate from heart disease is nearly 70 percent higher in women of color than it is in white women. Black women are also three times more likely than white women to have lupus—which in itself raises the risk for heart damage.

What are the primary areas of research in lupus—and is the cardiovascular system one of them? With no major new treatment approved in more than 40 years, lupus needs a breakthrough. Researchers have made significant headway recently, however, reporting exciting findings in terms of how the disease works and what can be done to treat it. Among the discoveries are a deeper understanding of the genetic links to lupus and enhanced recognition of how lupus attacks the brain, kidneys, and skin. And several promising advances have also been made in figuring out lupus heart disease. Researchers have learned a lot more about immune system abnormalities that target this organ and have greater insight into biomarkers (predictors) of atherosclerosis. There are also improved techniques for early detection of heart disease, and more options for drug treatment.

Are companies developing new drugs to treat lupus? Yes, finally. Several pharmaceutical companies are developing new medications. An online search will generate information on these companies and their drugs. You also can find websites that report new drug findings, such as

How can I help advance research and drug development? As a person with lupus, you can directly help in advancing lupus science—and simultaneously help yourself—by participating in a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a research project that evaluates the safety and effectiveness of medical treatments, drugs, or devices in human beings. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that such trials be performed before a product can be prescribed to patients. For information on clinical trials in lupus, try visiting the following websites:  

What is the outlook for people with lupus? There isn’t a cure yet, but every year now researchers are gaining promising new insights into this disease and uncovering promising treatments. Just twenty years ago, only 40 percent of people with lupus were expected to live more than thre
e years following a lupus diagnosis. Now, with earlier diagnosis, refinements in treatments, and careful monitoring, most people with lupus can look forward to a normal lifespan. More than 80 percent of people diagnosed with lupus in 2005 will live for 10 years or more. See the complete article on the Hospital for Special Surgery’s web site

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