A Triple Threat: Lupus, Heart Disease, and Osteoporosis

Lupus affects about 1.5 million Americans and nine times more women than men. There are several forms of lupus, but the most common is systemic lupus erythematosus. This autoimmune condition has serious side effects ranging from joint pain and stiffness, muscle aches, anemia and chronic fatigue. Aside from the symptoms of the disease itself, lupus also exacerbates two of the most common health problems women face—coronary artery disease and osteoporosis.

Coronary artery disease, also called coronary heart disease, is the single leading cause of death for American women, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Almost twice as many women die because of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases compared to all forms of cancer. Osteoporosis affects four times as many women as men and is characterized by low bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue, which causes bones to fracture easily, not just in falls, but sometimes from even just a cough or sneeze.

There's ample evidence showing that lupus increases a woman's risk of heart disease by five to 10 times as much as the general population, states the Lupus Foundation of America (LFA). Lupus carries several risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and inactivity because of joint and muscle pain. Plus, a major factor in heart disease is inflammation, and as the LFA puts it, lupus is the prototypic inflammatory disease.

About three decades ago, most people diagnosed with lupus didn't live for longer than four years after diagnosis. Today, many people survive longer than 10 years after they're first diagnosed, partly because of earlier diagnosis and treatment—in particular the use of steroids such as prednisone, which are some of the most powerful anti-inflammatory drugs on the market.

Unfortunately, there is a link between steroid use and premature arteriosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries). Plus, when used for a long period, steroids thin your bones. This doubles your risk of osteoporosis because lupus itself weakens bones through pain and lack of exercise. Women who have lupus suffer more bone loss and breaks than women who don't have the disease.

How to Protect Yourself from Heart Disease and Osteoporosis When You Have Lupus

Traditional methods of lowering heart disease risk may also be effective if you have lupus. The AHA recommends maintaining a healthy weight, eating a low-fat diet, not smoking, keeping your blood pressure within the normal range, and doing 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. The LFA reports that scientists are also researching possible new treatments to lower the risk of heart disease in women with lupus, including cholesterol-lowering drugs and aspirin therapy.

Women can also lower their risk of osteoporosis from lupus by taking steroids at the lowest effective dose, advises the LFA. However, consult your doctor about changes in your medication - you should never lower the dosage on your own, or stop taking it suddenly. They also recommend taking supplements or other medications that help to prevent osteoporosis. These include calcium and vitamin D supplements, hormones, calcitonin, bisphosphonates such as Actonel® and Fosamax®, or parathyroid hormone (Forteo®).

Also, the LFA recommends that people with lupus stay active. You may need to limit some activities when your joints are swollen or you have muscle pain. Otherwise, regular daily exercise will help to keep your bones strong and lower your risk of osteoporosis.