Atherosclerosis is an inflammatory disease and the major cause of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in general. Atherosclerotic plaques are characterized by the presence of activated immune competent cells, but antigens and underlying mechanisms causing this immune activation are not well defined. During recent years and with improved treatment of acute disease manifestations, it has become clear that the risk of CVD is very high in a prototypic autoimmune disease, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). SLE-related CVD and atherosclerosis are important clinical problems but may in addition also shed light on how immune reactions are related to premature atherosclerosis and atherothrombosis. A combination of traditional and nontraditional risk factors, including dyslipidaemia (and to a varying degree hypertension, diabetes and smoking), inflammation, antiphospholipid antibodies (aPL) and lipid oxidation are related to CVD in SLE. Premature atherosclerosis in some form leading to atherothrombosis is likely to be a major underlying mechanism, though distinctive features if any, of SLE-related atherosclerosis when compared with 'normal' atherosclerosis are not clear. One interesting possibility is that factors such as inflammation or aPL make atherosclerotic lesions in autoimmune disease more prone to rupture than in 'normal' atherosclerosis. Whether premature atherosclerosis is a general feature of SLE or only affects a subgroup of patients remains to be demonstrated. Treatment of SLE patients should also include a close monitoring of traditional risk factors for CVD. In addition, attention should also be paid to nontraditional risk factors such as inflammation and SLE-related factors such as aPL. Hopefully novel therapeutic principles will be developed that target the causes of the inflammation and immune reactions present in atherosclerotic lesions.

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