The Link between Rheumatoid Arthritis and Diabetes

As if rheumatoid arthritis isn't enough of a life changing diagnosis to cope with, now it appears that RA sufferers may be at an increased risk for developing diabetes as well.

Although, the connection between rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes is unclear at this point, but research suggests that it's real.

"There are tantalizing links between the two diseases," says Harvard Medical School professor of medicine and Brigham and Women's Hospital rheumatologist Dr. Daniel Solomon. "But at this point they are mainly speculative."

Both diabetes and RA are autoimmune conditions in which a person's own immune system goes on the attack against the body itself.

"When you have an autoimmune condition, your antibodies are actually attacking your own body," explains Dr. Susan Spratt, an endocrinologist at Duke University. "And when you have one autoimmune disease, like RA, you're at risk for getting another one such as type 1 diabetes."

Rheumatoid arthritis attacks the body's joints and causes ongoing inflammation. It's theorized that this inflammation may be connected to insulin resistance, which puts people at risk for developing type 2 diabetes, too. People with RA are more likely to have insulin resistance, in which the body does not respond to insulin the way it should.

Inflammation may not be the only culprit. Medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis may also bump up a patient's risk of diabetes. Steroids such as prednisone can not only cause weight gain but high blood sugar levels as well, according to Dr. S. Sethu Reddy, endocrinologist and author of The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Diabetes.

Steroids can affect how the pancreas works," Dr. Reddy says. "If you have RA and are on certain medications, these medications could be the tipping point."

Who's at Risk for RA?

Women are more likely than men to develop RA, according to the Mayo Clinic. It's most common for RA to occur between the ages of 40 and 60, although it can also appear in children and in older adults.

If other people in your family have RA, you may be at an increased of developing diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic.

How to Stay Healthy

Stop smoking. Since smoking cigarettes increases your risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Get help quitting if you can't do it on your own.

Reduce your medication, if possible. "Take the least amount of medication that you can to treat joint inflammation and pain," says Reddy. "Your doctor may start you off with a high dose and then go down to a low dose."

Get moving. People with RA may have a sedentary lifestyle simply because they are in pain. But this can lead to overweight and obesity, both known risk factors for type 2 diabetes. Find an exercise regimen that you like enough to stick with it over the long haul.