A major new study has discovered a potential link between Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and heart disease or heart attacks.
The research was unveiled at the American College of Cardiology meeting in Florida this week and involved data from more than 22 million patients across three years.
IBD is a term used to describe Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's disease, two inflammatory conditions that affect the gastrointestinal tract.
It was found that 5.9 per cent of patients with IBD had experienced heart attacks, compared with only 3.5 per cent without bowel disease. Overall, IBD patients were rated as having 23 per cent higher odds of having a heart attack than people who did not have either of the two conditions.
In addition, the highest risk of heart problems was discovered in the IBD patients aged 40 or under - and IBD is most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 30.
"Our hope is that our study encourages more clinicians to screen these patients more aggressively for heart disease," said Dr Muhammad Panhwar, co-author of the study.
"Clinicians who care for patients with traditional cardiovascular risk factors who also have IBD should recognise IBD as a cardiovascular risk factor as well and treat it appropriately," added his colleague Dr Mahazarin Ginwalla.
Although previous studies have demonstrated a link between heart disease risk and inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, this is the first time that IBD has been linked to the cardiovascular system.
The endothelial cells that line all of the body's blood vessels are extremely sensitive and generate an inflammation response whenever they perceive a threat or are damaged. White blood cells and other inflammatory substances are called in to repair damage.
However, macrophages can inadvertently cause harm as they digest any abnormal cholesterol under the surface of the endothelial cell layer, because they create foam cells that can either form new plaques in the blood vessels or destabilise existing ones.
Once these plaques rupture, they release large blood clots that can cause heart attacks.
Importantly, in people with IBD, an inflammatory response can occur even when there is no infection or damage. This attacking of the body's own cells is an autoimmune response - and it is likely to be this that makes patients more susceptible to heart attacks.
The study could lead to new methods of screening patients for IBD and perhaps even gene therapy to identify and treat those likely to develop it in future.