What an Arthritis Diagnosis Means for Your Heart

You might not think that a disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, which causes inflamed joints, would have anything to do with the heart. Research indicates, however, that patients with rheumatoid arthritis are in fact at increased risk of cardiac problems. On the surface, the two conditions would seem to have little to do with each other. So how are they connected?

According to a 2007 study, the reason so many people with rheumatoid arthritis have heart disease may have to do with inflammation rather than atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Scientists at the Mayo Clinic examined the hearts and arteries of 41 people with rheumatoid arthritis who had died and compared them with the hearts and arteries of 82 arthritis-free people, matched for age and sex, who had died within the same time frame. Some of the deceased were determined to have cardiovascular disease, and the scientists wanted to learn whether the hearts and arteries of the arthritis patients with heart disease were comparable to the hearts and arteries of the arthritis-free people with heart disease.

It turns out that there were significant differences between the groups: Less than a third of arthritis patients with heart disease had multiple-vessel disease, while more than two-thirds of heart patients without arthritis had multiple-vessel disease. Rheumatoid arthritis sufferers also had less obstruction in their vessels due to plaque formation than people without rheumatoid arthritis. And of the plaques that the arthritis sufferers had, a significantly higher percentage were deemed vulnerable, meaning they contained inflammatory cells and were prone to rupture, than the plaques that the non-arthritic patients had.

What does this mean for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers concerned about heart disease? The fact that the heart disease in the deceased arthritis sufferers appeared to be caused by something other than the traditional fatty plaques and hardening of the arteries that plagued the non-arthritis patients means inflammation in the body may have been the culprit. Since rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease, it makes sense that the inflammation that causes painful, stiff joints might somehow attack the heart as well.

In light of these findings, it's particularly important to minimize inflammation if you have rheumatoid arthritis. Take care to eat a nutritious diet, exercise regularly, lose weight if necessary, and talk to your doctor to see if medication is warranted.



Arthritis Foundation, www.arthritis.org;

American Heart Association, www.americanheart.org;

Cleveland Clinic, www.clevelandclinic.org.