This is a good news / bad news story and we’re going to start with the bad news:

People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are twice as likely as the general public to develop heart problems.

Yet until recently there’s been a gap between knowing about the risk and being able to pinpoint who is most likely to be affected by it.RA Patients Your risk for heart disease might be higher than you think

Which brings us to the good news…

A new patient assessment tool has been designed specifically to measure the risk of heart disease among people with RA. Developed by an international team of researchers that includes doctors and scientists from the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and Harbor UCLA Medical Center RHU, the ATACC-RA (Transatlantic Cardiovascular Risk Calculator for Rheumatoid Arthritis) risk assessment calculator has already proven to be more accurate than the risk calculators doctors currently use to asses an RA patient’s likelihood of developing heart disease.

The major predictors of heart disease in RA patients have to do with the RA itself—the disease, the inflammation it causes, and even the treatment it requires—says Sherine Gabriel, M.D., a Mayo Clinic rheumatologist and epidemiologist who was part of the international team that developed ATACC-RA. All of these factors make the RA population unique, yet none of them are considered in standard heart disease risk calculators—and that has led doctors to significantly underestimate heart disease risks in RA patients. (The Mayo Clinic is so committed to investigating the link between RA and heart disease, it established a Cardio-Rheumatology Clinic in 2013.)

Dr. Gabriel adds that ATACC-RA could also be an effective tool for people with rheumatic diseases such as lupus and psoriatic arthritis, and her colleagues at the Mayo Clinic are now investigating ways to refine and personalize the diagnostic tool even further.

As an RA patient, what’s your takeaway from this? First and foremost, that your risk of developing cardiovascular disease might be higher than you (or your rheumatologist) realize. Second, that there’s no time like the present to adopt heart-healthy habits:

  • Stop smoking
  • Control your weight
  • Monitor your blood pressure
  • Reduce your fat and salt intake
  • Consult a cardiologist for recommendations to reduce your cardiovascular risk.

Use of the more targeted ATACC-RA risk assessment calculator will yield an increase in the number of people with RA who also show a potential for heart disease. That’s slightly bad news. It also means that more people will be aware of their risks—and aware of them earlier—so they can do something about them. And that is very good news.