Living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) — a chronic illness that, without treatment, will get progressively worse — can be a struggle. While medications have to potential to ease pain and slow or even stop disease activity, they don’t work equally well for everyone. To make matters worse, RA probably isn’t the only ailment you’re trying to treat.
According to a new study published in the journal Rheumatology, RA patients are substantially more likely than those without RA to also experience depression, diabetes, hemiplegia (paralysis in half of the body), lung disease, liver disease, or stroke. The researchers examined data on nearly 1.5 million patients in the UK, including 6,591 with rheumatoid arthritis.
Having two or more health conditions at the same time — what doctors refer to as a comorbidity — tends to make each condition and your overall health more difficult to manage. Certain comorbidities also increase the risk of premature death, which is exactly what this new study found. People with RA plus any other condition were more apt to die earlier.
Overall, depression was the most common comorbidity among RA patients, though this condition was also fairly common among the general population (28 percent of RA patients versus 23 percent of those without RA).
However, RA patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) faced the greatest risk: They were almost three times more likely to die prematurely. The authors found that 7 percent of RA patients also had COPD, compared to 4 percent of those who did not have RA. Read more here about how arthritis affects your lung health.
Previous research has also noted that RA patients have a higher than average risk for COPD, probably because the same inflammation and immune system problems that impact the joints have a detrimental effect on the lungs. Other inflammation-related respiratory conditions, such as asthma and interstitial lung disease, are also more apt to occur in people with RA.
“Early and repeated assessment of comorbidities, including respiratory disease, should form part of the routine care of RA patients,” the authors of the new Rheumatology study concluded. “Management of comorbidities, especially preventable and modifiable ones and associated risk factors, early on in the disease course, may improve outcomes and quality of life.”