Heart Health

Autoimmune diseases pose a threat to the heart

The growing field of cardio-rheumatology aims to improve cardiac care for people with autoimmune diseases.

By , Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

cropped photo showing the hands of a doctor examining the hands of a patient for rheumatoid arthritis

Your immune system, a network of specialized cells and organs, defends your body against viruses, bacteria, and other invaders. But sometimes, for reasons that remain largely mysterious, immune cells launch an inappropriate attack against the body's own tissues. The resulting outpouring of white blood cells and other substances cause inflammation, triggering the pain, redness, and swelling that characterizes many autoimmune diseases (see "Autoimmune diseases: From common to rare").

But inflammation also damages the linings of blood vessels, encouraging the buildup of fatty plaque that can narrow arteries (atherosclerosis), boost blood pressure, and raise the risk for a heart attack or stroke. This connection likely explains why people with autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, have higher rates of heart disease. Until recently, however, the scope and severity of this problem has been unclear.

To continue reading this article, you must log in.

Subscribe to Harvard Health Online for immediate access to health news and information from Harvard Medical School.

  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »

I'd like to receive access to Harvard Health Online for only $4.99 a month.

Sign Me Up

Already a member? Login ».

About the Author

photo of Julie Corliss

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Julie Corliss is the executive editor of the Harvard Heart Letter. Before working at Harvard, she was a medical writer and editor at HealthNews, a consumer newsletter affiliated with The New England Journal of Medicine. She … See Full Bio
View all posts by Julie Corliss

About the Reviewer

photo of Christopher P. Cannon, MD

Christopher P. Cannon, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Heart Letter; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Christopher P. Cannon is editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter. He is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and senior physician in the Preventive Cardiology section of the Cardiovascular Division at … See Full Bio
View all posts by Christopher P. Cannon, MD


As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.

No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

You might also be interested in…

Living with an Autoimmune Disease

While autoimmune diseases may appear to be quite different, they share fundamental characteristics. Each has no known cause and no cure, so managing an autoimmune disease is a lifelong journey. This Guide is about managing that journey with fewer symptoms and greater ability to lead a full, active life. You’ll meet “the defining nine”… practical, proven measures that can minimize the impact of an autoimmune disease on your life. You’ll be briefed on ways to maximize the services of your health care providers, get tips for keeping medical costs in check, and be introduced to sources of positive emotional support. The Guide also provides timely recommenddations for vaccines and the special considerations for anyone with an autoimmune disease.
Read More

Free Healthbeat Signup

Get the latest in health news delivered to your inbox!

Sign Up
Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Thanks for visiting. Don't miss your FREE gift.

The Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness, is yours absolutely FREE when you sign up to receive Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School

Sign up to get tips for living a healthy lifestyle, with ways to fight inflammation and improve cognitive health, plus the latest advances in preventative medicine, diet and exercise, pain relief, blood pressure and cholesterol management, and more.

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School

Get helpful tips and guidance for everything from fighting inflammation to finding the best diets for weight loss...from exercises to build a stronger core to advice on treating cataracts. PLUS, the latest news on medical advances and breakthroughs from Harvard Medical School experts.

BONUS! Sign up now and
get a FREE copy of the
Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Stay on top of latest health news from Harvard Medical School.

Plus, get a FREE copy of the Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness.