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5 Reasons to Worry About Inflammation

It's not just about seeing red. The condition can be silent but cause serious damage.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

Chronic inflammation can be more than just painful—it can cause permanent damage and even shorten your life. Inflammation is normally a protective response to help the body heal from an injury or infection. But chronic inflammation puts the body in an emergency state longer than is necessary, and over time, that can degrade vital organs, tissues, and arteries, potentially leading to serious health problems. What's worse–you may not even know you have it. These are five reasons to worry about inflammation. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.

1

It May Cause Cardiovascular Disease

High detail image of unstable atherosclerotic plaque condition
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Cardiovascular disease (CVD)—which includes heart attacks, coronary artery disease and strokes—is responsible for every 1 in 3 deaths in the U.S. Experts say inflammation may raise your risk of developing CVD. "Many clinical studies have shown strong and consistent relationships between markers of inflammation such as hsCRP and cardiovascular disease prediction," say authors from the National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic in a 2020 paper on chronic inflammation.

According to Harvard Medical School, researchers are still trying to determine exactly how that happens. Heart attacks and strokes are often caused by the buildup of plaque in arteries. The body may perceive this plaque as foreign, and create inflammation to separate it from healthy blood flow. Unfortunately, that can cause blood vessels to clog, rupture or form blood clots, leading to serious or fatal cardiovascular events.

2

It Can Raise Cancer Risk

middle aged woman sitting on bed with stomach pain
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"Over time, chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage and lead to cancer," explains the National Cancer Institute. For example: People with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, have an increased risk of colon cancer. Inflammation has also been linked to cancer's ability to spread to other parts of the body, says MD Anderson Cancer Center.

RELATED: Signs You're Getting One of the "Most Deadly" Cancers

3

It May Contribute to Arthritis

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Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks healthy cells in joints, causing painful swelling. Systemic inflammation in the body, such as in the gut, may contribute to the development and progression of arthritis, researchers believe. The Arthritis Foundation says that following an anti-inflammatory diet (like the Mediterranean Diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids) may reduce bodywide inflammation and improve arthritis symptoms.

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4

It's Linked to Dementia

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Long-term inflammation can affect the brain, where it can cause serious damage—particularly aging the body's command center before it's time. "Chronic inflammation can contribute to cognitive decline and mental health disorders by boosting age-related immune system deterioration, known as immunosenescence, and by promoting vascular and brain aging, which, in combination, degrade neural and cognitive function," the Washington Post reported last year.

RELATED: 9 Everyday Habits That Might Lead to Dementia

5

It's Linked to Depression

Stressed senior woman at home
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Dementia isn't the only brain disorder seemingly connected to inflammation; the condition may raise the risk of depression as well. "Chronic inflammation can also cause threat sensitivity and hypervigilance, which gives rise to anxiety disorders and PTSD, as well as fatigue and social-behavioral withdrawal, which are key symptoms of depression," George Slavich, associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, told the Washington Post

The good news: There are easy things you can do every day to reduce inflammation. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.