Background: The relevance to coronary heart disease (CHD) of cytokines that govern inflammatory cascades, such as interleukin-6 (IL-6), may be underestimated because such mediators are short acting and prone to fluctuations. We evaluated associations of long-term circulating IL-6 levels with CHD risk (defined as nonfatal myocardial infarction [MI] or fatal CHD) in two population-based cohorts, involving serial measurements to enable correction for within-person variability. We updated a systematic review to put the new findings in context.
Methods and findings: Measurements were made in samples obtained at baseline from 2,138 patients who had a first-ever nonfatal MI or died of CHD during follow-up, and from 4,267 controls in two cohorts comprising 24,230 participants. Correction for within-person variability was made using data from repeat measurements taken several years apart in several hundred participants. The year-to-year variability of IL-6 values within individuals was relatively high (regression dilution ratios of 0.41, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.28-0.53, over 4 y, and 0.35, 95% CI 0.23-0.48, over 12 y). Ignoring this variability, we found an odds ratio for CHD, adjusted for several established risk factors, of 1.46 (95% CI 1.29-1.65) per 2 standard deviation (SD) increase of baseline IL-6 values, similar to that for baseline C-reactive protein. After correction for within-person variability, the odds ratio for CHD was 2.14 (95% CI 1.45-3.15) with long-term average ("usual") IL-6, similar to those for some established risk factors. Increasing IL-6 levels were associated with progressively increasing CHD risk. An updated systematic review of electronic databases and other sources identified 15 relevant previous population-based prospective studies of IL-6 and clinical coronary outcomes (i.e., MI or coronary death). Including the two current studies, the 17 available prospective studies gave a combined odds ratio of 1.61 (95% CI 1.42-1.83) per 2 SD increase in baseline IL-6 (corresponding to an odds ratio of 3.34 [95% CI 2.45-4.56] per 2 SD increase in usual [long-term average] IL-6 levels).
Conclusions: Long-term IL-6 levels are associated with CHD risk about as strongly as are some major established risk factors, but causality remains uncertain. These findings highlight the potential relevance of IL-6-mediated pathways to CHD.