Psoriasis is a potentially devastating skin disease, both physically and emotionally. While the signs of the condition are most visible on the exterior surfaces of the body, the damage that occurs inside the body may be far worse.
Psoriasis is an independent risk factor for a number of seemingly unrelated diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer, according to a rapidly growing body of scientific evidence.
The condition is a relatively common one in the United States, affecting roughly 1 percent to 3 percent of the population. Although it can arise at any age, it usually makes its unwelcome appearance between the ages of 15 and 25.
Typical manifestations of the disease include scaly patches on the skin. Known as psoriatic plaques, these red or silver patches are areas of inflammation and excessive skin production.
Psoriatic plaques may appear anywhere on the body, but often involve the knees, elbows and scalp. When fingernails and toenails are affected, they take on a scarred, pitted appearance.
Psoriasis can also cause inflammation and destruction of the joints. Nearly 15 percent of patients eventually develop a painful and potentially debilitating condition known as psoriatic arthritis.
Although the exact cause of the disease remains a mystery, psoriasis is the result of a dysfunctional immune reaction. Cells of the immune system are somehow incited to attack tissues of the body they are designed to defend.
In the course of their attack, the immune cells release a number of corrosive compounds that lead to irritation and inflammation. The body responds by hastily overproducing immature skin cells in patches that appear as red or silver psoriatic plaques.
The inflammation responsible for ravaging the skin of psoriasis sufferers also wreaks havoc elsewhere in the body, including the cardiovascular system. Inflammation appears to be the primary reason that patients with psoriasis are at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine demonstrated that psoriasis is an independent risk factor for heart attack. Their findings suggest that adults with severe psoriasis have a significantly greater risk of experiencing a heart attack than those without the skin disease.
A number of studies have demonstrated a greater risk of cancer in psoriasis patients, including squamous cell carcinoma and lymphoma. While some of this increased cancer risk may come from the disease itself, there's evidence to suggest that specific psoriasis treatments — especially those that suppress the immune system — may be contributing factors.
Psoriasis is linked to a higher risk of developing diabetes and atherosclerosis, also known as hardening of the arteries. In a study that included more than 46,000 psoriasis patients, researchers found that psoriasis sufferers were more likely to have both conditions than individuals without the skin disorder.
Compared to their male counterparts, women with psoriasis between the ages of 35 and 55 appeared to have the greatest risk of developing both diabetes and atherosclerosis. With an elevated risk of developing heart disease, cancer and diabetes, it's no wonder psoriasis sufferers may experience a shorter lifespan.
After studying thousands of individuals, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that patients with severe, untreated psoriasis had a 50 percent greater risk of death than those without the condition. Men with severe psoriasis were found to die 3.5 years earlier than non-affected individuals, while women with the disease typically lost 4.4 years of life.
Fortunately, when psoriasis sufferers receive proper treatment for their skin disorder, their overall health improves. Therapies that reduce inflammation and injury of the skin appear to help reduce inflammation and injury of the cardiovascular system and other tissues throughout the body.
Lifestyle changes are also critical. Many of the strategies employed to reduce the risk of psoriasis can have a positive impact on heart health.
Data collected from more than 116,000 women enrolled in the Nurses Health Study II revealed that women who smoke have a 78 percent greater risk of psoriasis than those who had never smoked. Stopping smoking not only reduces the risk of developing psoriasis, it also lowers the risk of experiencing a heart attack.
Consuming a wholesome, nutritious diet and losing excess weight are also beneficial. Getting plenty of exercise and sleep dramatically improves the health of the skin and the cardiovascular system.
With proper treatment and lifestyle changes, most psoriasis sufferers are delighted to find that they experience dramatic improvements in the appearance of their skin. Even better, they also increase their chances of living a long and healthy life.
Rallie McAllister is a board-certified family physician, speaker and the author of several books, including "Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim." Her website is www.rallieonhealth.com. To find out more about Rallie McAllister, M.D., and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.