A person cannot die from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). However, RA can increase the risk of developing complications that may compromise a person’s overall health.

RA is a chronic medical condition that involves increased levels of inflammation in tissues throughout the body.

The condition can make a person more likely to develop health complications affecting the heart and lungs. The risk of complications depends on a range of factors, including age, disease progression, and a person’s lifestyle.

There is currently no cure for RA. However, effective treatment can slow down or stop the condition’s progression and help prevent complications. Treatments work best when a person starts them early in the disease progression.

In this article, we look at how RA may affect a person’s lifespan.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

A person cannot die from RA. However, people with RA typically have a slightly reduced life expectancy. A study of almost 30,000 people with RA in Taiwan found that people with the condition have an average life expectancy reduction of 4.97 years.

However, with the correct management, many people with RA can have the same life expectancy as those without it.

People with seropositive RA are at a greater risk of developing severe forms of RA than those with seronegative RA. They also have a higher risk of developing physical complications such as rheumatoid nodules and vasculitis.

Widespread inflammation from RA can increase a person’s risk of developing other life threatening complications.

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RA causes inflammation throughout the body that, over time, can damage organ tissues. Having RA-related complications can affect a person’s lifespan.

Existing conditions

Findings of a 2017 study indicate that the following are more likely to cause death in people with RA than in the general population:

People with RA may be more likely to develop infections because of reduced immune system function. Some medications prescribed to treat RA can also increase the risk of infection.

Other risk factors

It is difficult to predict how complications of RA may affect a person’s lifespan. This is because their risk and severity depend on a wide range of factors.

Factors can include:

  • RA progression
  • sex, with females being more likely to develop severe RA, though males with and without RA have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease
  • age at diagnosis, with early diagnosis improving a person’s outlook
  • lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking alcohol

Authors of a 2018 study report that overall mortality rates among people with RA have decreased in recent years. This may be at least partially due to improved treatment methods.

Medications such as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biologics can reduce the risk of RA-related complications.

Learn more about DMARDs and biologics here.

As RA progresses, long lasting or frequently occurring inflammation in the joints can lead to permanent joint damage. This can affect the cervical spine joints in the neck and may cause nodules to form under the skin.

RA can also increase the risk of certain health conditions. The following sections discuss three main complications: heart disease, respiratory problems, and infection.

Heart disease

RA can cause inflammation and damage to the arteries, the heart muscles, or tissues surrounding the heart.

Pericarditis, which is inflammation of the pericardium (the pouch surrounding the heart) and fluid buildup in this pouch, may be significant factors. Pericarditis is the most common cardiac complication of RA, though people rarely experience symptoms. Fewer than 10% of people with RA have symptomatic pericarditis.

While pericarditis is rarely a serious complication, any symptoms affecting the pericardium can be life threatening.

People with RA are also much more likely to develop atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of plaque in the arteries. In a person with RA, this plaque is more likely to be brittle and break away, leading to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

Some RA medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids, may also increase the risk of atherosclerosis. Other medications, including JAK inhibitors, can increase the risk of other major cardiac events.

The Arthritis Foundation notes that RA increases the risk of several other heart complications, including:

Respiratory disease

According to the Arthritis Foundation, beyond complications that affect the joints, people with RA are most likely to experience complications involving the lungs.

RA increases the risk of respiratory issues, such as:

The rate of interstitial lung disease is eight times higher in people with RA. It occurs when excessive inflammation from an overactive immune system causes scarring in lung tissue. This can make breathing difficult or impossible, and a person could eventually need a lung transplant.

People with RA may also have a higher risk of developing blockages in the small airways of the lungs. Sometimes, RA medications can also cause adverse reactions in the lungs and lung lining.

Infection

People with autoimmune conditions such as RA are more susceptible to potentially serious and even fatal infections.

In people with RA, it is still unclear whether this susceptibility results from the condition or a side effect of RA medications, including biologics and steroids.

Vaccinations, such as the COVID-19, flu, and pneumococcal vaccines, can help prevent some infections associated with RA.

For more advice on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, visit our coronavirus hub.

Other complications

Other complications from RA include:

Learn more about the effects of RA on the body here.

Most people with RA can lead a full and active life. It is important for a person to follow a healthy lifestyle to reduce the risks of other illnesses associated with RA.

There is no cure for RA. Treatments aim to slow the progression of the condition and manage symptoms such as inflammation and pain.

An effective treatment plan can help prevent complications of RA. Some home remedies may also help manage RA symptoms and protect against complications.

Doctors may recommend that people with RA make changes to their diet and lifestyle, such as:

  • quitting smoking
  • doing regular low impact exercises, such as swimming and light muscle training
  • eating a balanced diet and avoiding processed foods
  • going to counseling or engaging with a support group
  • taking plenty of time to rest throughout the day

People with RA should work directly with a doctor to create and adapt their treatment plan.

Regular appointments with a rheumatologist may also help. The specialist can monitor the progression of the disease and recommend any necessary treatment changes.

Complementary therapies — such as massage, meditation, and acupuncture — may also benefit people with the condition. Results can vary, so it may help to try a few different techniques.

Following an anti-inflammatory diet for RA can also help.

Learn about 11 home remedies for RA here.

RA is a chronic condition with no known cure. People do not die from RA. However, it can lead to serious complications that can compromise overall health.

A person with RA may have a reduced life expectancy. However, the condition affects each person differently, and it can be difficult for doctors to predict an individual’s outlook.

Receiving treatment and making recommended lifestyle changes early on can help manage symptoms and improve a person’s outlook.

A person with RA should work directly with a doctor and rheumatologist to set and modify treatments. Doing this can help manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.