For so many people, being hospitalized for pneumonia is bad enough. Now new research, led by an Ottawa doctor, suggests the infection may lead to a higher risk of an even more serious condition: heart disease. The study, entitled “The Association between Pneumonia and Subsequent Risk of Cardiovascular Disease” looked at patients who had never had heart disease before but who had been hospitalized for pneumonia.  It uncovered a higher risk of heart disease especially in those over 65. 

But, so far, researchers are not sure why. 

89-year-old Marion Gallagher had a bout of pneumonia last October that landed her in the hospital for a week.

‘It took me a long time to get over the pneumonia,’ says Gallagher, ‘took me a long time.’

Now a new study indicates that being hospitalized for pneumonia increases the risk that Gallagher will develop heart disease. 

‘I have never had anything wrong with my heart,’ says Gallagher, who had also never been hospitalized for pneumonia before. Does she feel she is at greater risk of heart disease? ‘I don't know.  I hope not.’

But research, led by Dr. Vicente Corrales-Medina, an infectious disease physician and researcher at The Ottawa Hospital, has uncovered a link between the two. 

‘Being hospitalized for pneumonia increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke down the road,’ says Dr. Corrales-Medina, ‘not only short term, after a few days or months, but longer than that, for 10 years in people over age 65.’

Working in conjunction with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, including Dr. Sachin Yende, Dr. Corrales-Medina found the risk increased even in people in their 40's.  But it was the group over 65 that had the highest risk, especially if they had at least two other risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.

‘If they had pneumonia, that risk would increase to 80 or 90%,’ explains Dr. Corrales-Medina, ‘so the increase in risk was very significant.’

The study was published on-line today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The next focus of the research will examine what is causing this link. The theory is an inflammation from the pneumonia.

‘We are studying the possibility that it is a lingering inflammation from the infection,’ says Dr. Corrales-Medina, ‘that could still remain in body of people with pneumonia even though they overcame that.

We are trying to find out what the biological mechanisms are that drive this association so that in the future, we can develop targeted interventions to prevent these cardiac events from happening in these people who have already had pneumonia.’

Researchers say they don't want to alarm people with this information but encourage them to take proactive steps in trying to avoid pneumonia in the first place or in trying to reduce their risk of heart disease if they have already had pneumonia.

Marion Gallagher is now part of Dr. Corrales-Medina's study.  She plans to make sure her family doctor knows about the research - before any heart issues arise.

‘I want her to keep checking my heart and my lungs.’