Researchers have found a connection between rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and a shorter lifespan. However, this condition affects people differently, and disease progression differs from person to person, so it’s hard to predict one’s prognosis.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes pain and swelling in different joints in the body and can also affect the internal organs.
It’s possible to live a long life with RA, but it is estimated that the disease can potentially reduce life expectancy by 3 to 10 years.
There’s no cure for RA, although remission can happen. Even when the condition improves, symptoms can return, or you can develop comorbidities, putting you at risk for complications.
Read on to learn how you can reduce your risk.
What Affects Life Expectancy?
If you’re diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, it’s important to understand how this condition can reduce life expectancy.
As a progressive illness, it’s not uncommon for RA symptoms to worsen over the years. It isn’t the disease itself that shortens life expectancy, though. Rather, it’s the effects of the disease.
The major effects involve:
- your immune system: As an autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis weakens the immune system, making you susceptible to infections — some serious.
- chronic inflammation: Chronic inflammation can damage healthy tissues, cells, and organs, which can be life threatening if left unchecked.
- duration of the disease: If you’re diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at a young age, you’ll live with the disease longer than someone diagnosed with the disease later in life.
- comorbidities and complications: You can develop complications or other conditions while having RA, and these can affect your outlook. The longer you have the disease, the greater the likelihood of developing complications that could shorten your lifespan.
- untreated RA: Reduced life expectancy can also occur when RA treatment doesn’t work or if you don’t seek treatment for symptoms or complications. People living with untreated RA are twice as likely to die than people who are the same age without RA.
Other Risk Factors
Other factors that can affect life expectancy include your overall health, such as if you have other chronic conditions, your genetics, and your current lifestyle.
Other risk factors include:
According to the Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network, more females are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis than males. The disease tends to be more severe in females, too.
If the blood test shows the presence of these proteins, you have seropositive rheumatoid arthritis. If you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis without the presence of these proteins, your doctor may diagnose seronegative rheumatoid arthritis.
Typically, people with seropositive RA have more aggressive symptoms, contributing to a shorter life expectancy.
Smoking is a serious risk factor for developing RA and impacts the disease’s severity.
Research has shown that you can reduce the risk of developing more severe RA by stopping smoking.
Complications of RA
Rheumatoid arthritis complications — some potentially fatal — include:
The exact link between RA and heart disease is not exactly established.
However, it is known that people with RA are have a 1.5-fold risk of developing atherosclerosis. Plaque builds up in the blood vessels, causing the narrowing of the arteries, triggering high blood pressure, and restricting blood flow to the heart and other organs.
People living with with rheumatoid arthritis are also more likely to develop atrial fibrillation. This irregular heartbeat leads to restricted blood flow, raising the risk for blood clots, heart attack, or stroke.
Inflammation doesn’t only affect the joints, it can also affect the lungs. This can lead to lung disease and lung scarring.
These conditions can cause:
- shortness of breath
- a dry, chronic cough
- a buildup of fluid between the lining of the chest cavity and the tissue surrounding the lungs
Progressive lung disease can make breathing difficult, and people with it have a high mortality rate. Some people with RA may need a lung transplant to improve lung function and breathing.
A weak immune system due to RA increases the risk for infections like flu and pneumonia. Also, certain drugs used to treat RA may increase your risk for infection.
With rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system attacks your joints. These medications can help suppress your immune system, but a weaker immune system also increases your risk for infection.
A weak immune system also puts you at risk for lymphoma. This is a type of cancer that begins in the white blood cells.
Lymphocytes are white blood cells that are responsible for immune responses. Lymphoma starts in these cells.
Chronic inflammation can also cause anemia, which is the reduction of red blood cells.
Anemia affects how well oxygen travels through your body. Low levels of red blood cells force your heart to work harder and compensate for low oxygen levels.
If left untreated, anemia can cause heart problems and heart failure.
How To Lower Your Risk For Complications
Despite the risk, several strategies can improve your quality of life and reduce the risk of serious complications:
- exercise: Physical activity doesn’t only improve joint mobility, it can also reduce inflammation and pain. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Choose gentle exercises that don’t cause further joint pain, like walking, swimming, or biking.
- lose weight: Being overweight or obese puts more pressure on your joints, increasing pain and inflammation. Talk with your doctor about a healthy weight based on your age and height. Take steps to lose extra weight.
- eat a healthy diet: Consume more anti-inflammatory foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to reduce pain and strengthen your immune system.
- quit smoking: Smoking can lead to lung inflammation and raise your blood pressure, putting you at risk for heart attack or stroke. Choose nicotine replacement therapy to quit, or ask your doctor about prescription medications to help stop cravings.
- follow your treatment plan and take medication as directed: Follow up with your doctor to monitor your progress. If symptoms don’t improve, your doctor may need to adjust your treatment.
- get a flu shot: Due to your risk for infection, talk to your doctor about getting an annual flu shot. This can protect against influenza and complications like pneumonia, ear infections, and bronchitis.
- schedule regular checkups: Don’t skip your annual physicals. Routine health screenings can identify problems early, such as irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and lymphoma.
- reduce stress: Stress is an RA trigger. Chronic stress can prompt flares and inflammation. Practice stress management techniques. Know your limits, learn how to say no, practice deep breathing exercises, and get plenty of sleep.
You may also want to speak to your doctor about getting the vaccination for pneumonia. It’s often recommended for people with certain health conditions, including RA.
When To See A Doctor
Rheumatoid arthritis can progress, so talk with your doctor about new or unusual symptoms. These include:
- shortness of breath
- a lump on your neck
- increased pain or swelling
- flu-like symptoms that don’t improve
- unexplained weight loss
- splinter hemorrhages around fingernails (vasculitis)
You should also see a doctor if your current therapy doesn’t improve your symptoms, or if RA starts to have a negative impact on the quality of your life.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here you’ll find additional answers to common questions about RA and life expectancy.
What is end-stage rheumatoid arthritis?
When a person reaches the final stages of RA, the affected joints will be almost completely gone and fused together. However, a person is not likely to reach this stage with treatment. Even if they do, this usually only causes deformities. Death usually happens as a result of complications affecting the heart, lungs, or other systems, or if a person becomes ill with another disease.
What is the most common cause of death in patients living with rheumatoid arthritis?
Research shows that more than half of deaths related to RA happen due to cardiovascular diseases.
How did your rheumatoid arthritis start?
Doctors do not know what causes RA, but there may be triggers. This likely includes genetics, which means that a person will have family members with the condition. It also includes becoming ill with a bacterial viral infection and experiencing an injury. Females are more likely to develop RA than males.
The Bottom Line
Although rheumatoid arthritis may shorten life expectancy by 3-10 years, the disease affects people differently, and different factors play a role in lifespan.
You can’t predict this disease. But while some people experience serious complications, others go on to live long, healthy lives without complications.
Even though there’s no way to predict the progression of rheumatoid arthritis, treatments have improved over the years. This allows many diagnosed with the condition to live long, healthy lives into their 80s or 90s, with fewer complications of the disease.
With an early diagnosis and treatment, it’s possible to achieve remission and enjoy life to the fullest.
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