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RA Diagnosis Doubles Heart Attack Odds

Diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis Increases Heart Attack Risk Within 10 Years, but Most Treatments Reduce Risk
WebMD Health News

Oct. 30, 2008 -- Getting a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis doubles the risk of having a heart attack within the next 10 years, according to Swedish researchers presenting their findings this week at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology in San Francisco.

But that disturbing news was tempered by other research finding that medications to lower cholesterol may lower the risk and that all but one commonly used medication to treat RA also appear protective of the heart.

About 1.3 million Americans have RA, an inflammatory type of arthritis marked by pain, swelling, stiffness, and problems in joint motion, according to the American College of Rheumatology. Women are twice as likely as men to be affected.

RA & Heart Attack Risk Study

The increased risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular problems in patients with rheumatoid arthritis has long been known. "What we haven't known before is when in the RA disease process this increased risk is manifest," says Marie Gunnarsson, a doctoral student at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, who is presenting the study findings.

Her team used the Swedish RA Register to identify 7,954 patients newly diagnosed with RA and matched them with 38,913 people from the general population. They followed both groups for more than 10 years, beginning in 1995, collecting data on heart attacks, death from heart attacks, and other causes.

They computed the average rate at which the heart attacks and deaths happened. From the time of diagnosis to the first 10 years after it, the risk of heart attack and death from heart attacks nearly doubled in the RA group.

At the time of diagnosis, the patients were no more likely to have a heart attack history than the control group, Gunnarsson and her colleagues found. Over the years, experts have questioned whether there are common risk factors for heart attack and rheumatoid arthritis. But Gunnarsson says the new finding supports the idea that the disease itself has something to do with the development of heart problems.

The inflammation that occurs with RA could be driving up the risk, she says. Or there could be other aspects of the disease, as yet unknown, that are driving up the risk, she says.

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