Objective: HIV-seropositive patients are at higher risk for atherosclerosis than HIV-seronegative persons. This has been variably attributed to antiretroviral drug toxicity, immunodeficiency, and/or HIV-associated inflammation. To evaluate the contributions of these factors to HIV-associated atherosclerosis, we assessed carotid artery intima-media thickness in a diverse cohort of HIV-seronegative and seropositive adults, including a unique group of HIV-infected patients who were untreated, had undetectable viral loads, and had preserved CD4+ T-cell counts (HIV controllers).
Methods and results: Carotid intima-media thickness was measured in 494 participants, including 33 HIV controllers and 93 HIV-seronegative controls. HIV controllers had higher intima-media thickness than seronegative controls even after adjustment for traditional risk factors (P = 0.003). Intima-media thickness in controllers was similar to antiretroviral-untreated patients with detectable viremia. Across all participants, intima-media thickness was strongly associated with the presence of HIV disease rather than viral load or CD4+ T-cell count. C-reactive protein was higher in HIV controllers than HIV-seronegative persons. Antiretroviral drug exposure was also associated with higher intima-media thickness.
Conclusions: Increased atherosclerosis with HIV infection can occur in the absence of antiretroviral therapy, detectable viremia, or overt immunodeficiency. Chronic inflammation – which is higher in controllers than in HIV-uninfected persons – may account for early atherosclerosis in these patients.