By Pat Anson, Editor
Rheumatoid arthritis is a painful, disabling and incurable disease of the joints. But what many RA patients don’t know is that it also significantly raises their risk of a heart attack.
A new study by researchers in Mexico found that one quarter of patients with rheumatoid arthritis and no prior symptoms of heart disease could have a surprise heart attack. Their risk was higher even without cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking and diabetes.
“The condition nearly doubles the risk of a heart attack but most patients never knew they had heart disease and were never alerted about their cardiovascular risk," said Adriana Puente, MD, a cardiologist at the National Medical Center in Mexico City.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own defenses attack joint tissues, causing swelling, inflammation and bone erosion. About 1% of adults worldwide suffer from RA.
Dr. Puente’s study, which was presented this week at the International Conference of Nuclear Cardiology in Madrid, involved 91 RA patients with no prior symptoms of heart disease. Ninety percent of the patients were women, their average age was 59, and they had similar cardiovascular risk factors as the general population.
Nearly one quarter of the patients (24%) had abnormal Gated SPECT, indicating the presence of ischaemia or infarction – decreased blood flow to the heart which can lead to the death of heart tissue.
"The ischaemia and infarction may be explained by the persistence of the systemic inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis which may cause an accelerated atherosclerosis process,” said Puente.
"The results highlight the importance of conducting diagnostic tests in patients with rheumatoid arthritis to see if they have cardiovascular disease, specifically atherosclerotic coronary artery disease (ischaemia or myocardial infarction) even if they have no symptoms and regardless of whether they have cardiovascular risk factors.”
Puente says patients should be warned that some RA medications, such as corticosteroids and methotrexate, can elevate plasma lipid levels and raise their risk of cardiovascular disease.
"Patients with rheumatoid arthritis should be told that they have an elevated predisposition to heart disease and need pharmacological treatment to diminish the inflammatory process and atherosclerotic complications. They also need advice on how best to control their rheumatoid arthritis and decrease their cardiovascular risk factors,” she said
Many health experts believe the inflammation triggered by RA in the joints may raise inflammation throughout the whole 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.
But the heightened risk of heart disease applies to all forms of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, gout, lupus and psoriatic arthritis.
“Inflammation, regardless of where it comes from, is a risk factor for heart disease,” says rheumatologist Jon T. Giles, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University School of Medicine. “So it’s not surprising that people with inflammatory arthritis like RA, lupus and psoriatic arthritis have more cardiac events.”