HIV-positive individuals are at increased risk for a number of health issues that can threaten their physical and emotional well-being. For example, people with HIV are more likely to get cardiovascular disease (CVD) than people without HIV. Risk factors that exist in the HIV population include diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Other conditions that can increase the risk of CVD in the general population include psychological problems.
However, until now, no study has looked at how psychological conditions such as depression, social isolation, or alexithymia affect risk for CVD in an HIV-positive sample. To address this void in research, Biustino Parruti of the Unit of Infectious Diseases at Pescara General Hospital in Italy recently led a study that looked at how Type D personality traits including negative affect, social inhibition, and avoidance, or alexithymia, which is a deficit in emotional processing, worked to influence risk of CVD in 232 adults with HIV.
This study was done as a follow-up to data that had been collected two years earlier. Parruti wanted to determine whether data from the original assessment could predict risk factors for CVD two years later. The results revealed that certain psychological issues did have a direct impact on risk for CVD in HIV-positive participants. Parruti looked specifically at carotid plaque (CP) and other vascular indicators to determine risk of CVD and found that the HIV participants with depression had higher levels of CP two years later than those without depression, but this was not indicative of CVD per se. However, the individuals with alexithymia had higher levels of CP and other CVD markers that put them at greater risk of CVD than the participants with depression or Type D personalities.
One explanation for this finding is that in general, people with alexithymia are already at increased risk for other conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and smoking addiction, that make one more vulnerable to CVD. But because the participants in this study did not present with high rates of those conditions it can be assumed that Alexithymia may be a unique and unexpected risk factor for CVD in HIV-positive individuals. Parruti cautions that these findings should be considered exploratory, and adds, “In fact, further research is strongly warranted: should our findings be confirmed, they may pave the way to an array of additional interventions to control cardiovascular disorders in the HIV population.”
Parruti, G., Vadini, F., Sozio, F., Mazzott, E., Ursini, T., et al. (2013). Psychological factors, including alexithymia, in the prediction of cardiovascular risk in HIV infected patients: Results of a cohort study. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54555. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054555
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