Various autoimmune rheumatic diseases (ARDs), including rheumatoid arthritis, spondyloarthritis, vasculitis and systemic lupus erythematosus, are associated with premature atherosclerosis. However, premature atherosclerosis has not been uniformly observed in systemic sclerosis. Furthermore, although experimental models of atherosclerosis support the role of antiphospholipid antibodies in atherosclerosis, there is no clear evidence of premature atherosclerosis in antiphospholipid syndrome (APA). Ischemic events in APA are more likely to be caused by pro-thrombotic state than by enhanced atherosclerosis. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) in ARDs is caused by traditional and non-traditional risk factors. Besides other factors, inflammation and immunologic abnormalities, the quantity and quality of lipoproteins, hypertension, insulin resistance/hyperglycemia, obesity and underweight, presence of platelets bearing complement protein C4d, reduced number and function of endothelial progenitor cells, apoptosis of endothelial cells, epigenetic mechanisms, renal disease, periodontal disease, depression, hyperuricemia, hypothyroidism, sleep apnea and vitamin D deficiency may contribute to the premature CVD. Although most research has focused on systemic inflammation, vascular inflammation may play a crucial role in the premature CVD in ARDs. It may be involved in the development and destabilization of both atherosclerotic lesions and of aortic aneurysms (a known complication of ARDs). Inflammation in subintimal vascular and perivascular layers appears to frequently occur in CVD, with a higher frequency in ARD than in non-ARD patients. It is possible that this inflammation is caused by infections and/or autoimmunity, which might have consequences for treatment. Importantly, drugs targeting immunologic factors participating in the subintimal inflammation (e.g., T- and B-cells) might have a protective effect on CVD. Interestingly, vasa vasorum and cardiovascular adipose tissue may play an important role in atherogenesis. Inflammation and complement depositions in the vessel wall are likely to contribute to vascular stiffness. Based on biopsy findings, also inflammation in the myocardium and small vessels may contribute to premature CVD in ARDs (cardiac ischemia and heart failure). There is an enormous need for an improved CVD prevention in ARDs. Studies examining the effect of DMARDs/biologics on vascular inflammation and CV risk are warranted.
Keywords: Atherosclerosis; Immune system; Inflammation; Rheumatic.
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