Ulcerative Colitis Tied to Heart and Stroke Risks
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Ulcerative Colitis Tied to Heart and Stroke Risks

Here’s the surprising thing about inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease: They affect much more than the bowel. Ulcerative colitis, for instance, can cause problems across the body, including joint pain, liver disease, osteoporosis and skin lesions. And it’s increasingly becoming clear that IBD also hikes the risk of heart disease.

Related: Got more questions about abdominal pain? Use AskMD.

2 studies, 1 key message
Two studies presented at medical meetings spotlight the dangers. In one, researchers from the Mayo Clinic looked at data from more than 150,000 IBD sufferers across nine studies. They found that IBD appeared to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke by 10% to 25%. The risk was highest in women. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology in late 2013.

In the second one, Danish researchers analyzed data from more than 23,000 IBD sufferers, 553 of whom were hospitalized for heart failure during follow-up. That rate is nearly 40% higher compared to people without IBD, and people of all ages—not just seniors—were affected. And the likelihood of developing of heart failure was highest when people’s IBD symptoms were the worst: 2.5 times greater during a flare-up of IBD and 2.7 times greater risk if disease activity remained persistent. However, during the periods of remission that are common in IBD, the heart failure risk returned to normal. These findings were presented at the Heart Failure Congress in 2014.

What’s the likely link between gut and heart? Inflammation. Experts think both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s are caused by a misplaced immune system attack on the intestines, which produces inflammation in the digestive tract and throughout the body. That inflammation can then cause blockages in the arteries. Another possibility: The steroid medications often used to treat severe IBD symptoms could contribute to the heart failure.

Both studies show that doctors and other health professionals should continue to be mindful of the shared relationship between IBD, cardiovascular disease and other cardiovascular complications in order to detect problems early and improve the outcomes of their patients' prognosis.

Related: Learn more about ulcerative colitis.

Manage your symptoms as best you can
Though researchers are still trying to understand how IBD may harm the heart, you can take action now to protect yourself. Here are ways to keep your IBD in check and your ticker in top shape.

Stay on top of your heart health. Your doctor should closely monitor your heart health and help you overcome any other heart risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure or diabetes. Detecting heart problems early is key to stopping their progress. Here’s a step-by-step plan for a healthy heart.

Don't ignore your symptoms. Abdominal pain and diarrhea are the most common symptoms, but did you know that fatigue and fever can herald a flare? Knowing your symptoms is an important step in managing flare-ups.

Pass on foods that irritate your bowels. Try to identify any foods that set off your symptoms, and steer clear of them. Though your diet may not be the sole cause of IBD, some foods just aren't worth the trouble.

Keep stress in check. While stress doesn’t cause IBD, effective stress management may be one way to keep the upper hand on your symptoms.