Doctors have observed a link between asthma and an increase risk of heart disease but, as with many medical findings, the reasons for the connection aren’t clear.
“No one knows what the link is between heart disease and asthma, but it is a statistical fact,” says Russell B. Leftwich, MD, a physician specializing in allergy and immunology in Nashville, Tenn., and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. “Even when you take away smoking and other risk factors, there is still an increased risk of heart disease in people with asthma.”
Doctors have a variety of theories about the possible link between asthma and heart disease including:
• Genes. One theory suggests some kind of genetic link. “There are 29 genes known to be associated with asthma,” says Leftwich. “Perhaps it’s one of those genes.”
• Inflammation. A possible link between asthma and heart disease could involve their connection to inflammation. Heart disease is an inflammatory disease: Inflammation makes the arteries harden. As for asthma, it’s caused by airway inflammation. “Inflammation in one part of the body promotes inflammation in other parts of the body,” says Leftwich. “When you have inflammation in one part, you have chemicals released, and those chemicals travel to other parts of the body and cause inflammation at those other sites.”
• Weight. Obesity may be another factor linking asthma and heart disease. It certainly contributes to developing asthma and to developing heart disease, says Leftwich, though what exactly the connection is, is not yet clearly understood.
• Confusing Symptoms. “People who are having heart failure or angina or heart pain such as tightness in the chest may mistake those symptoms for breathing difficulty or other symptoms of asthma,” says Leftwich. Heart failure can cause fluid to build up in the lungs and airways, and can lead to symptoms that resemble asthma symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath.
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