BACKGROUND: Premature coronary artery disease is a major cause of illness and death in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus, but little is known about the prevalence, extent and causes of coronary-artery atherosclerosis. METHODS: We used electron-beam computed tomography to screen for the presence of coronary-artery calcification in 65 patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (mean [±SD] age, 40.3±11.6 years) and 69 control subjects (mean age, 42.7±12.6 years) with no history of coronary artery disease. When calcification was detected, the extent was measured by means of the Agatston score. The frequency of risk factors for coronary artery disease was compared in patients and controls, and the relation between the patients' clinical characteristics and the presence or absence of coronary-artery calcification was examined. RESULTS: The two groups were similar with respect to age, race, and sex. Coronary-artery calcification was more frequent in patients with lupus (20 of 65 patients) than in control subjects (6 of 69 subjects) (P=0.002). The mean calcification score was 68.9±244.2 in the patients and 8.8±41.8 (P<0.001) in controls. Levels of total, high-density lipoprotein, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol were not elevated in patients with lupus, but levels of triglycerides (P=0.02) and homocysteine (P<0.001) were. Among patients with lupus, measures of disease activity were similar in those with and those without coronary-artery calcification, but those with calcification were more likely to be older (P<0.001) and male (P=0.008). CONCLUSIONS: In patients with systemic lupus erythematosus, the prevalence of coronary-artery atherosclerosis is elevated and the age at onset is reduced. Early detection of atherosclerosis may provide an opportunity for therapeutic intervention.
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