- Reviewed by Christopher P. Cannon, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Heart Letter; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing
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
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
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter
About the Reviewer
Christopher P. Cannon, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Heart Letter; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing
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.