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Rheumatoid Arthritis Raises Heart Attack Risk

Women who have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may be surprised to learn that this type of arthritis may put them at greater risk for heart attacks.

This was the conclusion of a study published in March 2003 in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association. The news affects more than 900,000 American women with RA, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the joints, leading to pain, swelling and stiffness.

This is not the first study to find a link between RA and heart attack, but it is the largest. Researchers used data from Harvard University's ongoing Nurses' Health Study to track the health of more than 114,000 women over 20 years. Researchers found that the women who were diagnosed with RA were twice as likely to have a heart attack than those who did not have the condition. And heart attack risk increased with the number of years a woman had RA.

The inflammation connection

More research is needed to determine the correlation between RA and heart disease, but experts believe that inflammation may be the link. Inflammation is a major component of RA, and researchers theorize that it may also contribute to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), one of the causes of heart attack. Experts think that the inflammation of RA may cause plaque in artery walls to rupture and cause fatal blood clots, which is one of the causes of a heart attack.

Next steps

Researchers believe that enough evidence exists now to list RA as a risk factor for heart attack. The next step is to examine how people with RA might alter their drug treatment plan or make lifestyle changes to reduce their risk for heart attack. The research indicates that it is more important than ever for people with RA to discuss their health, and especially their risk for heart attack, with their doctor. Until more information is available, people with RA should take steps to reduce the standard risks of cardiovascular disease, including:

  • Smoking

  • High blood pressure

  • High blood sugar (diabetes)

  • High cholesterol

Through diet, regular exercise, lifestyle changes and, when necessary, medications, these risk factors can be limited or even eliminated.


Online Medical Reviewer: Akin, Louise RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Shmerling, Robert H. MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/2/2009
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