Could rheumatoid arthritis make you live a shorter life than other people?
People with RA don’t live as long as other people on average. Life expectancy, or how long you may expect to live, is influenced by many things, like your genes, age, medical history, and lifestyle. RA can shorten your life expectancy by an average of 10 years compared to people who don’t have the disease.
But people with RA are living longer than ever before. Though the disease may still affect life expectancy, it doesn’t have as much impact as it did in the past. Newer, better RA medications that treat inflammation, lower disease activity, and control your disease are a main reason.
Disease Activity and Life Expectancy
Disease activity tells you how well your RA is controlled. The doctor measures it with blood tests and physical exams at your regular appointments. High disease activity means your RA is poorly controlled. High disease activity that stays high over time shortens your life expectancy.
But RA medications can help you lower your disease activity. If it stays low, your risk of serious health conditions and a shorter life span go down, too.
Complications Play a Role
RA doesn’t directly shorten your life. But it does raise your odds of getting some serious health conditions (your doctor will call them complications) that could affect your health and life expectancy:
Heart disease. RA makes you more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. Chronic inflammation stresses your heart and blood vessels over time. People with RA have twice the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and atherosclerosis.
Diabetes. RA makes you more likely to get type 1 and type 2.
Lung and stomach problems. RA also raises your risk of lung and digestive diseases that affect life expectancy.
Cancer. People with RA have a higher risk of some types of cancer, such as lymphoma and lung cancer.
Infections. Some drugs used to treat RA may make you more likely to get infections.
Can You Predict Life Expectancy With RA?
How do you know if RA will affect your life expectancy? Research shows these things can predict a shortened life span:
- Having rheumatoid factor, an antibody associated with autoimmune diseases like RA
- Rheumatoid nodules -- lumps or bumps of various sizes that you can see and feel around your joints
- High levels of inflammation that stay high over time
Other things might also play a role:
Age when your RA started. People diagnosed with RA at a younger age may have a shorter life expectancy. Young adults with RA often have more severe symptoms.
The type of RA you have. People with seropositive RA have one of two antibodies in their blood: rheumatoid factor or anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP). Some research suggests that if you have seropositive RA, you’re more likely to develop lung disease.
Smoking . This is something you can control. Smokers with RA are more likely to have lung inflammation and more aggressive RA. Smoking, with or without RA, can shorten your life expectancy by 10 years. Quit smoking or get help to quit. Stop smoking before age 40 to get the most benefit.
Can You Change Your Risk?
Your life doesn’t have to be shorter if you have RA. You can raise your life expectancy by getting your disease activity under control. If you lower your disease activity and keep it low, you’ll have a better quality of life and may live longer, too.
Take these steps:
- Start treatment as early as possible. People who see a rheumatologist for diagnosis and treatment soon after they notice symptoms do better in the long term. The sooner you start treatment, the less damage RA can do.
- Follow your treatment plan. See your doctor regularly to watch for complications and keep an eye on your progress.
Other positive things you can do include:
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- Exercise regularly.
- Don’t smoke.
- If you notice any unusual symptoms, tell your doctor right away. They may be early signs of complications that need to be treated.