Rheumatoid Arthritis Raises Death Risk

By Pat Anson, Editor

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is not only painful and disabling – new research indicates it raises the risk of an early death, especially for patients with seropositive RA.

In a study of nearly 1,000 women with RA, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston found that RA significantly increased the women’s risk of death from cardiovascular and respiratory disease. The women are enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study, which has followed more than 100,000 female registered nurses since 1976.

"Because the Nurses' Health Study is so large and has been following participants for so long, we were able to gather much more information about our subjects - we could follow them before and after diagnosis, take their health behaviors into account and determine specific causes of death. By doing so, we found strong evidence of increased risk for respiratory, cardiovascular and overall mortality for patients with RA," said lead author Jeffrey Sparks, MD, a physician in BWH's Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy.

RA is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own defenses attack joint tissues, causing swelling, inflammation and bone erosion. Because RA is incurable, treatments focus on suppressing the immune system to reduce inflammation and slow progression of the disease.

Sparks and his colleagues evaluated 964 women in the Nurses’ Health Study and compared their mortality rates to women in the study without RA. The team controlled for other risk factors, including smoking, a known cause of respiratory and cardiovascular mortality, as well as age, body mass index, physical activity and diet.

They found that RA was associated with a 40 percent increased risk of death and that many RA patients died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Researchers also looked at differences between the two types of RA, "seropositive" and "seronegative." Patients with seropositive RA have auto-antibodies related to RA, and generally have more severe symptoms. The team found that participants with seropositive RA had nearly three times the risk of respiratory mortality than women who did not have RA. Seronegative RA was not significantly associated with increased risk of respiratory mortality.

"We found that whether participants with RA were seropositive or seronegative really mattered - those who were seropositive were at higher risk, particularly for respiratory mortality," said Sparks. "We hope that this study will encourage patients and clinicians to be more aware that patients with RA are at increased risk of both respiratory and cardiovascular mortality, particularly patients with seropositive RA."

A recent study by researchers in Mexico found that RA patients with no prior symptoms of heart disease were at higher risk of a heart attack. Their risk was higher even without other cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking and diabetes.

Many health experts believe the inflammation triggered by RA in the joints may cause inflammation throughout the body, including the heart’s coronary arteries.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, more than 50 percent of premature deaths in people with rheumatoid arthritis result from cardiovascular disease. The heightened risk of heart disease applies to all forms of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, gout, lupus and psoriatic arthritis.