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How Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects Lifespan

When I was first diagnosed at age 34 with rheumatoid arthritis, I didn’t have internet access.  But I did hunt for whatever information I could find.  I recall that one of the first things a doctor told me was that rheumatoid arthritis affects lifespan.

Today, I often read posts on RA-based, social media pages by newcomers to the disease who have read or been told that RA will shorten their lives.  They write posts asking how the condition will shorten their lives, or want to know what they can do to change that. Some of them are actually in panic-mode. Let me try to shed some light on that subject.

How I Was Told RA Would Affect My Lifespan

While the first doctor mentioned that the disease would shorten my life, it was the cold statement from my second rheumatologist that hit me in the gut and instilled fear of the future in me. I changed physicians after my first rheumatologist told me she had nothing to give me but the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that didn’t help. The new guy projected an arrogant air that concerned me. In our first and only meeting, he told me I would end up in a wheelchair and said I should know that my life would be shortened. Clearly, this man had nothing positive to offer me. I stood, gave him a rude reply and left his office.

It was on to yet another rheumatologist. Once again, I was prescribed pills (NSAIDs) – different from the last. One of those actually helped, but the FDA eventually removed it from the market saying it caused heart problems. I drifted through one pill after another for 10-12 years until I decided to try yet another rheumatologist.

A Good Rheumatologist Changed My Life

In 1994, I found a wonderful rheumatologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who introduced me to proper rheumatoid medications. The first 3 – Methotrexate, Plaquenil and Arava – didn’t work, but Dr. Grace Teal gave me hope. When she educated me on biologic drugs in 1998 and started me on Enbrel, I actually believed I might beat this disease! The thought that rheumatoid arthritis might shorten my life became the farthest thing from my mind. A lot depends on how you approach this disease.

Complications May Determine if Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects Lifespan

While RA itself doesn’t kill you, complications from it can impact your life and sometimes leads to death. Back in 1978 I was told to expect my life to be cut short by this disease, but with newer treatments and early diagnosis, that isn’t necessarily true.

Statistics don’t fit everyone, so you cannot be certain that your life will be affected by such general numbers as you may read on the internet. A wise RA patient would read the statistics for the knowledge and then do everything you can to improve your chances for a long life.

The RA Complications that Might Affect Lifespan

RA patients seem to have a high risk of developing serious heart or lung problems, specific cancers and stomach problems. However, experts can’t always tell us if the disease creates the problems or if it is the medications treating the problem that could prove fatal. Genetics play a part in who gets RA, but so does lifestyle.

RA May Cause Some Lung Issues

Approximately 30-40% of RA patients develop some lung issues. Lung scarring from interstitial lung disease might cause breathing difficulties. Or certain medications may cause chest infections. Smoking kills! Smoking will contribute to a shortened life span for RA patients.

RA Patients More at Risk for Heart Disease

Heart disease causes as many as 1/3 of deaths in RA patients. Atheroschlerosis, or a build-up of plaque in the arteries, isn’t uncommon. Since RA causes inflammation all over the body, including the heart. Chronic inflammation puts stress on your heart and blood vessels over time, increasing the risk of heart attacks, stroke, and atheroschlerosis. Recent evidence suggests that NSAIDs may cause high blood pressure, and there is a connection with an increase in heart disease deaths. So rheumatoid arthritis may affect lifespan if heart disease is present.

RA Increases Risk of Certain Cancers

Digestive diseases often rear their ugly heads in RA patients. Years ago, deaths occurred from complications related to the use of NSAIDs. Those usually resulted in bleeding or perforated ulcers on the lining of the stomach, and those caused rheumatoid arthritis to affect lifespan. Today new drugs exist that help protect the stomach from the harsh anti-inflammatory drugs, resulting in fewer incidents of death.

RA increases the risk of lymphoma, a cancer that affects the blood and lymph glands. This type of cancer appears mostly in RA patients with aggressive arthritis who most likely receive aggressive medications to treat them. But is it because of the RA disease or the medication treating it? Lymphoma is listed as a serious side effect of the biologic drug I take. But since I’ve taken this drug for 24 years, I’m not concerned about it.

Is the Mortality Rate for RA Patients High?

Some studies say yes, but others say not so much. One study says the mortality rates are higher and RA patients are twice as likely to die before age 75, due to heart disease and respiratory conditions. I recently celebrated my 80th birthday, so I beg to differ with that study. This is a case of statistics that are too general. It’s up to each individual to address his or her own disease and how to approach and treat it.

Develop Healthy Life Habits

image by Canva

If you smoke, stop NOW! We all know that smoking damages the lungs in health people. For those of us with RA, it’s worse. Keep watch on your blood pressure and take any medications your physician prescribes. Regular exercise helps. Make up your mind to do some kind of physical exercise daily for 30 minutes to an hour. If you can’t do it all at one time, spread it out.

Eat a healthy diet! The internet is full of suggestions for what you should and should not eat. The Mediterranean Diet is recommended. Sugar and other carbs are a no-no. Educate yourself. Your body will thank you.

Factors that Contribute to a Shortened Lifespan

One medical source says that having a positive rheumatoid factor, having rheumatoid nodules and high levels of inflammation that stay high over time all contribute to a shortened lifespan. Your age when your RA began plays a role.

If all of those factors were true, I probably wouldn’t be here today to write about it. At 80 years old, I’ve lived a long and full life. While I was diagnosed at age 34, I believe RA symptoms were present when I was a young teenager. I do have nodules as do many of us with the disease. My levels of inflammation certainly seemed high all those years when I basically had no treatment NSAID’s that didn’t work are not my idea of treatment!

Logic says: Do the best you can to avoid trouble. How long you live depends on many factors, such as genetics, your medical history and the way you live. While it is said that RA will shorten your life by as much as 10 years, that isn’t necessarily the case. Stay under the care of a good rheumatologist. Don’t be afraid to change doctors if one isn’t working for you. Listen to your doctor, get regular blood tests, take your prescribed medications, and follow a healthy lifestyle.

Newer drugs have helped many patients live longer and live well. I am one of them!

8 thoughts on “How Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects Lifespan”

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