Dr. Michael Stickland

Dr. Michael Stickland

Airways, arteries, and asthma

As research continues to unravel the intricate links between lung disease and heart disease, Dr. Michael Stickland, associate professor of medicine at the University of Alberta and director of the G.F. MacDonald Centre for Lung Health in Edmonton, finds himself immersed in the connections between airways and arteries.

One of his studies examined the effects of physical activity on inflammation, arterial stiffness, and vascular function in people with asthma, trying to explain why people with asthma have a higher risk of heart disease. For Dr. Stickland and his team, the goal of their research is to provide physicians and patients with information they can use to develop better treatment plans and reduce health risks.

In addition to the increased risk of heart disease, people with asthma also have higher rates of inflammation and stiffer arteries, and tend to be less physically active. What are the connections among these factors? For many people who have asthma, it is often less stressful to remain sedentary or to participate at lower levels of activity, to avoid an attack. For instance, kids with asthma tend to play baseball rather than soccer, as they and their parents learn to avoid—and often fear—potential triggers.

The study considered whether the lower levels of physical activity associated with asthma might contribute to the increased arterial stiffness. In other words, perhaps behaviour (the inactivity) as well as physiology (the asthma) played a role in making arteries stiffer and increasing the cardiovascular risk.

When they compared people who had asthma and people who didn't, all of whom had similar physical activity levels, they found those with asthma had more stiffening of the arteries than the control group, despite the similar levels of activity. They concluded that the arterial stiffness of asthma is likely associated with the condition itself and not with the level of physical activity—advancing the body of knowledge around airways and arteries and opening up new avenues of investigation. His team is now considering whether an asthma attack adversely affects arterial stiffness.

Dr. Stickland is very appreciative of the ongoing support and funding he and his lab have received from The Lung Association. “It has been invaluable in furthering our work to improve the quality of life for people who struggle with lung conditions, keeping them out of the hospital and as active as possible for as long as possible.”