Most of us know that psoriasis affects the skin. It is very common (about 3% of Americans have it) and can cause scaly, pink areas on the scalp, elbows, knees, and lower back. In fact, for decades psoriasis was thought of as a disease that only caused a skin condition.
However, new research shows that people with psoriasis have inflammation throughout their bodies and therefore are at increased risk for a number of serious health problems.
A cardiologist studying patients with psoriasis used special scans to detect inflammation inside the body. He found that even healthy patients with psoriasis, who did not have arthritis or any other internal health problems, exhibit widespread and significant inflammation.
This inflammation is not just in their skin but in the heart, liver, lungs, major blood vessels and bones. These findings confirm that psoriasis is not just a skin disease, but a body-wide inflammatory and autoimmune condition.
- Arthritis. About 20-30% of people with psoriasis develop joint pain, called psoriatic arthritis. It can occur anywhere but is especially likely in the lower back and the small joints of the hands and feet. It often shows up as morning stiffness or stiffness after sitting for long periods. Many of the new medications for psoriasis also substantially help psoriatic arthritis.
- Cardiovascular disease. Heart disease is the #1 killer in America and people with psoriasis are at increased risk. People with psoriasis are 58% more likely to have a heart attack and 43% more likely to have a stroke. Controlling risk factors like maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and seeing you doctor to monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol can help reduce these risks.
- Diabetes. High blood sugar is becoming increasingly more common in the United States and having psoriasis increases this risk. For people with severe psoriasis the risk is increased by 46%. Having even mild psoriasis increases the risk of diabetes by 11%. Diabetes can have numerous consequences on the body, including blindness, kidney failure, and heart disease.
- Depression. Psoriasis can impact all aspects of a person’s life, including social life and relationships. About a quarter of people with psoriasis have had depression at some point and having psoriasis doubles the risk of suicidal thoughts.
It is not known to what degree treating psoriasis may lower these risks, although early evidence indicates that systemic treatments (like ultraviolet light treatment, methotrexate pills, and the newer biologic drugs) do substantially decrease the risk of heart attack. There is much research still to be done to understand why these risks are increased and how to prevent the consequences of these conditions.
If you have psoriasis, here is a good list of what you can do to try to minimize your risk:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise regularly (especially cardiovascular fitness like running, cycling, or swimming).
- Avoid smoking, or quit if you do smoke.
- See your primary care doctor regularly to monitor your cardiac risk factors like blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation in the body.
- See your dermatologist regularly to keep your psoriasis under control.
Remember that although there is no cure, there is a lot that you can do to manage the effects of psoriasis. Doing so might not only improve your quality of life, but your overall health.