Rheumatoid arthritis is a debilitating condition that people associate with chronic joint pain and disability. It can affect many other parts of the body in unpredictable ways, so it’s essential to be completely on top of treatment and lifestyle.
The inflammation that comes with this autoimmune disorder attacks the joints and much more. This can result in some very serious consequences, including diseases of the heart and lungs.
You might think that these comorbidities come as a result of longstanding chronic inflammation, but did you know that you can also have these complications early on with rheumatoid arthritis?
Different complications affect different age groups
Rheumatologists have noted that many of these complications are already present when someone is diagnosed. Patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis more often than not have multiple complications that come with their first few years of joint pain and symptoms. There are different complications that happen depending on the patient's age. For example, one complication is an inflammation of the eyes known as uveitis, which can dangerously cause children to become blind. This complication is especially common in kids who have juvenile idiopathic arthritis, a cousin to rheumatoid arthritis that we commonly see in adults. However, adults who start having their disease later on in life often don't suffer from uveitis but rather get different complications instead.
The association between medical disease and rheumatoid arthritis
In 2014, there was a large study that looked into the complications of rheumatoid arthritis more closely. The investigators collaborated internationally with many different countries to collect information about rheumatoid arthritis patients and their comorbidities. They found that the most common complications in early rheumatoid arthritis included depression, heart attack, stroke, asthma, and chronic obstructive lung disease. Most of the patients evaluated in this study had been living with rheumatoid arthritis for about 10 years, but some were newly diagnosed at less than one year.
Just two years later, another study followed suit and came to similar conclusions. This Swedish study performed in 2016 evaluated 950 people newly diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Out of almost a thousand patients who had been living with rheumatoid arthritis for less than a year, 53% already had complications at the time of their diagnosis. Most commonly, these included hypertension and chronic obstructive lung disease. Almost half of the participants were plagued with these diseases! Other important complications to note include type II diabetes and cancer.
Furthermore, the Swedish study followed their participants 5 years later. They found that at that time, 41% of people developed a new complication. Some common comorbidities found at that time included cancer, high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, and bone density loss.
There is still more to understand
So does this mean having rheumatoid arthritis is making people sicker than the average person? Unfortunately, it's hard to really decipher what's responsible for these medical comorbidities. Many of these diseases are extremely common in the general population, so it may be the fact that these patients might have developed such comorbid conditions regardless of whether or not they had rheumatoid. There are also so many factors - such as diet, genetics, and lifestyle - that can influence a person's risk of getting conditions such as heart and lung disease. Because of all these variables, it can be hard to determine whether rheumatoid is the outstanding culprit in causing these medical diseases.
However, what we do know is that rheumatoid arthritis involves a lot of increased inflammation. Inflammation is a known factor in the progression of many different diseases that are common in our general population. It's heavily involved in asthma and cancer, and it's also responsible for a lot of chronic gastrointestinal diseases. Rheumatoid arthritis is also associated with inflammation that is known to contribute to developing heart disease.
This common complication can prevent you from breathing effectively
Another important complication well-known to the rheumatoid community is interstitial lung disease. This type of complication is especially common if someone is taking methotrexate, a commonly prescribed medication to manage the progression of joint inflammation and destruction. Interstitial lung disease involves a lot of scarring and destruction of the lung parenchyma, which results in chronic shortness of breath and poor lung function. This unfortunate consequence of rheumatoid can leave someone unable to breathe, making it difficult to enjoy daily activities or exercise.
Sometimes, this lung destruction can be so bad that you can't even breathe when you're at rest, and it can also buy you a hospital stay if your oxygen levels get too low. Unfortunately for some, this terrible complication can actually strike early on in the disease’s course. Some people are diagnosed with interstitial lung disease at the time they are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
The importance of general health while living with RA
All of these complications are very serious and can even be fatal if untreated. So if you have rheumatoid arthritis, what can you do to give yourself the best chance at maintaining good health? For one, it's even more important for you to eat and live in a way that's good for cardiovascular health. When it comes to diet, make sure you are avoiding processed foods and saturated fats as much as possible. Food choices that are full of unhealthy saturated fat include animal products like red meat and dairy. You don't necessarily have to become a vegetarian, and doctors often recommend lean poultry as an option for healthy meat. Fish are a good alternative as well, as many are filled with healthy omega-3 fatty acids that can actually improve your heart health.
If you're a smoker, it's time to quit!
Smoking can have a lot of negative effects on your heart and lung health, and can really worsen your situation, especially if you have rheumatoid arthritis. Your lung tissues are already so susceptible to inflammation from your autoimmune disease, that subjecting them to toxins like tobacco is only going to make things worse. Though it's extremely difficult to put down those cigarettes after years of chronic smoking, it's even more important to save your lungs and ultimately save your own life.
Exercise is equally important in protecting your heart
Exercise and daily activity are also important ways to stay healthy. For someone suffering from chronic joint pain, this is easier said than done. Some days, it might be so difficult to simply get out of bed to perform daily household tasks, so how can you even fathom picking up a sport or taking a walk around the local park? Exercise, however, is super important to keep your heart healthy. Just 30 minutes of walking a day can do wonders to reduce the risk of blood pressure problems, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Talk with your doctor if you have terrible joint pains - there are some special exercises and sports that may be more amenable to your limitations! Things like tai chi, swimming, or even gentle yoga can be great options to take the pressure off of your joints but still give you a great workout for both your mind and body.
Researchers are still figuring out more about the connection between rheumatoid arthritis and other serious medical conditions. Though we are in the initial stages of understanding the underlying cause, hopefully, they can begin to work on preventative measures people can take to help avoid the progression of these complications. In the meantime, try to live your life to the fullest by choosing heart-healthy options to protect both your body and your mental health.