How Does Rheumatoid Arthritis Affect Life Expectancy?

Does Rheumatoid Arthritis Shorten Your Life?

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) usually is not fatal, but complications of the disease can shorten a person’s lifespan. No one knows for sure how their lifespan with RA will be affected, so it is important to be aware of what affects life expectancy, including disease progression, lifestyle, and treatment failure or success.

Co-occurring Diseases in RA

RA is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease, which means the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body by mistake. This causes inflammation (painful swelling) in the affected parts of the body - mainly the joints.

Although RA is most-associated with joint issues, the disease can affect other tissues in the body as well. Because of this, people with RA face a higher likelihood for developing other diseases before and after the RA diagnosis. Research has shown people with RA have lower overall survival rates than people without the disease due to complications.

The co-occurring diseases most likely to affect lifespan in people with RA include:

  • Heart-related diseases. Studies have found people with RA face an increased risk for cardiovascular death, ischemic heart disease, and heart failure compared with people without RA. Researchers attribute this to inflammation in heart tissue and higher amount of plaque - which can restrict blood flow.
  • Lung disease. Evidence shows lung complications are associated with significant morbidity and mortality in people with RA. About one-third of patients with RA have decreased function of their lungs.
  • Cancer. Research has shown people with RA face a higher risk for certain cancers - namely lung cancer and lymphoma. Evidence suggests the connection between cancer and RA is based on inflammation and shared risk factors.

Clinical Guidelines for Managing RA

Although there is no cure for RA, treatments are available to help control the disease. Clinical guidelines for RA treatment, published in 2021 by the American College of Rheumatology, doubled down on previous guidance emphasizing the use of methotrexate as the main disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) treatment before adding another medication.

On average, people with RA live about 10 years less than people without the disease.

How Does RA Affect Lifespan?

Laura Porter / Verywell

Others Factors Affecting Life Expectancy in RA

Beyond co-occurring diseases, there are a number of other factors and lifestyle behaviors that could worsen outcomes in people with RA - including increasing the risk for complications and death. These factors and habits include:

  • Age. Age can be a major factor in RA life expectancy. The younger a person is at the onset of RA, the more likely they are to have more severe symptoms and complications. This is because the duration of the disease is longer. Children developing the juvenile form of the disease are particularly vulnerable.
  • Gender: Women are two to three times more likely to have RA than men are, and women’s symptoms are worse than men’s. RA in women tends to be more progressive, which can lead to complications. While RA in men tends to be less severe, men with RA have a higher risk of developing heart disease related to RA inflammation.
  • Diet. A diet high in sugar and unhealthy fats may increase the inflammatory response in the body. Conversely, a diet high in antioxidants, fiber, and healthy fats may have an anti-inflammatory affect and promote healthier intestinal flora, which also can help lower chronic inflammation.
  • Smoking: People with RA are advised not to smoke. Research shows a strong connection between smoking and the severity of RA. Smoking causes lungs to be inflamed and may even activate antibodies that cause RA to progress. Further, having a weakened immune system can lead to respiratory disorders.
  • Seropositive RA: People with seropositive RA tend to have a more severe form of RA, which could mean more joint deformity, inflammation outside joints (i.e. organs) and an increased risk for disability.

Improving Life Expectancy

Early diagnosis and treatment with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs and biologics can improve quality of life and life expectancy. The goal of RA treatment is to reduce pain and improve symptoms and quality of life. An effective treatment plan with the assistance and monitoring of a rheumatologist can prevent or treat complications as they develop.   

There is no cure for RA, but treatments may help people achieve remission. Remission means RA symptoms quiet down and a person starts to feel better.

A Word From Verywell

The rate of premature death is higher for people with RA than it is in the general population. And while RA usually is not fatal, the disease’s complications have been known to shorten lifespan for some people. But newer, more aggressive, treatments have reduced the potential for complications, joint damage, and disability and increased the potential for remission, which means people with RA are living longer.

There are many people with RA managing their diseases successfully, enjoying good quality lives, and even living well into their 80s and 90s and even beyond. Make sure you are consulting regularly with a rheumatologist, making healthy choices, and following the treatment plan recommended by your healthcare provider to improve your own health outcomes, life quality, and longevity.

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13 Sources
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