Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can make a person more likely to develop health complications affecting the heart and lungs. The risk of complications depends on a range of factors, including age, disease progression, and a person’s lifestyle.
There is currently no cure, but effective treatment can slow down or stop the progression of the condition and prevent complications. Treatments work best when a person starts taking them early in the disease progression.
In this article, we look at how RA may affect a person’s lifespan.
A person cannot die from RA, but the associated inflammation can lead to life-threatening complications.
RA is a chronic medical condition that involves increased levels of inflammation in tissues throughout the body.
A person cannot die from RA. However, the widespread inflammation that characterizes the condition can lead to life-threatening complications.
According to the Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network, a person with RA may have a lifespan that is approximately 10, or at most 15, years shorter than average.
Yet in many cases, people with RA have the same life expectancy as people without it, especially when the symptoms are well controlled.
What factors affect lifespan?
RA causes inflammation throughout the body that, over time, can damage organ tissues. Having RA-related complications can affect a person’s lifespan.
Findings of a 2017 study indicate that the following are more likely to cause death in people with RA than in the general population:
People with RA may be more likely to develop infections because of weakened immune system function. Some medications that people use to treat RA can also increase the risk of infection.
It is difficult to predict how complications of RA will affect a person’s lifespan because their risk and severity depends on a wide range of factors.
These factors include:
- how far RA has progressed
- sex, with females being more likely to develop severe RA, though males with and without RA have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease
- age at diagnosis, with early diagnosis improving a person’s outlook
- individual risk factors, such as a family history of heart disease, particularly due to specific genetic markers
- lifestyle factors, such as smoking and drinking alcohol
Authors of a 2018 study report that overall mortality rates among people with RA have decreased in recent years. This may be at least partially due to improved treatment methods.
Medications, such as disease-modifying antirheumatics and biologics can reduce the risk of RA-related complications.
RA affects each person differently, and there is no way to accurately predict the lifespan of a person with the condition.
Treatments have improved significantly in recent years, and controlling inflammation plays a role in reducing the risk of mortality.
Complications of RA
As RA progresses, long-lasting or frequently occurring inflammation in the joints can lead to permanent joint damage. This can affect the joints of the cervical spine in the neck, and it may cause nodules to form under the skin.
RA can also increase the risk of certain health conditions. The following sections discuss three of the main complications: heart disease, respiratory problems, and infections.
RA can cause damage to the tissues surrounding the heart.
RA can cause inflammation and damage to the arteries, the heart muscles, or tissues surrounding the heart.
Pericarditis, which is inflammation of the pericardium, the pouch surrounding the heart, and fluid buildup in this pouch may be especially significant factors. Pericarditis may affect around one-third of the people with RA.
While pericarditis is rarely a serious complication, any symptoms affecting the pericardium can be life-threatening.
People with RA are also much more likely to develop atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of plaque in the arteries. In a person with RA, this plaque is more likely to be brittle and break away, leading to a much higher risk of heart attack and stroke.
The Arthritis Foundation note that RA increases the risk of a number of other complications involving the heart. They report that a person with RA may have:
- a nearly doubled risk of ischemic stroke
- a tripled risk of deep vein thrombosis, which refers to blood clots in the legs
- a more than quadrupled risk of a life-threatening pulmonary embolism
According to the Arthritis Foundation, beyond complications that affect the joints, people with RA are most likely to experience complications involving the lungs.
RA increases the risk of respiratory issues such as:
- nodules in the lungs
- a buildup of fluid in the lung tissue, usually in the space between the lung and the chest wall lining, which is called pleural effusion
- interstitial lung disease
Interstitial lung disease affects 1 in 10 people with RA. It occurs when excessive inflammation from an overactive immune system causes scarring in lung tissue. This can make breathing difficult or impossible, and a person could eventually need a lung transplant.
People with RA may also have a higher risk of developing blockages in the small airways of the lungs.
People with autoimmune conditions, such as RA, tend to be more susceptible to potentially serious or fatal infections.
In people with RA, it is still unclear whether this susceptibility results from the condition or a side effect of RA medications, including biologics and steroids.
Vaccinations, such as the flu and pneumococcal vaccines, can prevent some infections associated with RA.
Other complications from RA include:
- inflammation in the eye
- type 2 diabetes
- rheumatoid vasculitis, which is inflammation in the blood vessels
How to prevent complications
A doctor may recommend low-impact exercises to help prevent complications of RA.
There is no single known cause of RA, and there is no single treatment or cure. Treatments aim to slow the progression of the condition and control symptoms, such as inflammation and pain.
An effective treatment plan can help prevent complications of RA. Some home remedies may also help keep RA symptoms in check and protect against complications.
Doctors may recommend that people with RA make changes to their diet and lifestyle, such as:
- quitting smoking
- doing regular low-impact exercises, such as swimming and light muscle training
- eating a balanced diet rich in whole, natural foods and avoiding processed foods
- going to counseling or engaging with a support group
- taking plenty of time to rest throughout the day
Following an anti-inflammatory diet for RA can also help.
Complementary therapies — such as massage, meditation, and acupuncture — may also benefit people with the condition. Results can vary, so it may help to try out a few different techniques.
Anyone with RA should be working directly with their doctor to create and adapt their treatment plan.
Regular appointments with a rheumatologist may also help. The specialist can monitor the progression of the disease and recommend any necessary treatment changes.
RA is a chronic condition with no known cure. People do not die from it, but RA can lead to complications that can be life-threatening.
A person with RA may have a significantly reduced life expectancy, but the condition affects each person differently, and it is difficult to predict the outlook.
Receiving treatment and making recommended lifestyle changes early on can help manage symptoms can improve the outlook.
A person with RA should work directly with their regular doctor and a rheumatologist to set and modify treatments, which can control symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
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