New Study Says Rheumatoid Arthritis May Increase Risk of Death

Research showed that rheumatoid arthritis upped patients' mortality risk by as much as 40 percent.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an inflammatory disorder of the small joints of the hands and feet, may increase risk of death by as much as 40 percent, according to a new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH).

While this is not the first study to link rheumatoid arthritis with mortality, previous investigations were unable to control for other variables, such as smoking, that might confound RA’s effect. BWH’s results, however, arose from the broader Nurse’s Health Study, which tracked the health of more than 100,000 female registered nurses starting in 1976. Having access to such a wide sampling of participants allowed the BWH team to monitor short- and long-term behaviors among the women, both before and after diagnoses of arthritis, to hone in more specifically on causes of death.

Among the 964 women studied, the researchers found that those with rheumatoid arthritis were at significantly greater risk (about 40 percent higher) of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and overall mortality than those without the disorder. This increase held true even as the team controlled for dozens of other variables, including age, body mass index, physical activity, and diet. Many of the patients with RA died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), specifically, though the study did not illustrate exactly why.

The researchers also looked at two different types of arthritis—seropositive and seronegative—and found that those afflicted with the former had almost three times the mortality risk of the latter when it came to respiratory causes.

Study author Jeffrey Sparks said in statement that these findings should underscore the importance of monitoring RA patients’ overall health. “We hope that this study will encourage patients and clinicians to be more aware that patients with RA are at increased risk of both respiratory and cardiovascular mortality, particularly patients with seropositive RA,” he said in the statement.

Sparks and his team will continue to investigate these connections, in addition to the underlying causes and preconditions associated with RA, according to the statement.