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Can Rheumatoid Arthritis Cause Death?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder known to affect your joints but can affect other parts too. It is a chronic inflammatory condition that results in inflammation of tissues in the body. As a result, it can affect various tissues and organs and even increase the risk of several disorders. But can rheumatoid arthritis cause death? For this, we need to understand how rheumatoid arthritis affects the tissues. Rheumatoid arthritis can be diagnosed and managed very well in most cases. Although a person may not die from rheumatoid arthritis, it can cause life-threatening complications in some patients.

Some studies have found that rheumatoid arthritis can increase the risk of heart ailments that can be one of the causes of death in people with rheumatoid arthritis.1

However, that too varies from person to person and depends on other co-morbidities, their age, gender, and background. Yet many people with rheumatoid arthritis enjoy life and can control the complications, especially when the disease is diagnosed and treated appropriately.

Rheumatoid Arthritis – Symptoms and Complications

The commonly known symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include pain, swelling, tenderness, and stiffness in the joints, usually associated with muscle aches, fatigue, and general malaise.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease that causes inflammation of the tissues and synovia. It can cause joint destruction, osteoporosis, disability, and other extra-articular manifestations like pericarditis, vasculitis, rheumatoid nodules, and Sjogren’s syndrome. Rheumatoid Arthritis needs proper management to prevent complications hence it is necessary to identify the symptoms and signs of complications at an early stage.

Some of the common complications that need attention include:

  • Rheumatoid nodules or lumps of tissue on the skin, particularly on fingers, elbows, and heels, while also in other areas like the heart and the lungs.
  • Vasculitis is a result of inflammation of the blood vessels.
  • Signs of nerve damage like tingling, numbness in hands and feet, or damage to internal organs may be seen.
  • Eye complications like inflammation of the sclera, dry eyes making eyes feel gritty
  • Dry skin and vaginal dryness
  • Anemia or inadequate healthy red blood cells, causing fatigue, dizziness, and rapid heartbeat

Can Rheumatoid Arthritis Cause Death?

While rheumatoid arthritis, as a condition usually cannot cause death, its complications or effects can at times affect the life expectancy. For those who are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, it is necessary to understand the possible complications and how they can affect life expectancy. Thus, it would be easy to formulate a treatment plan and have a preventive approach to manage complications.

It is believed that rheumatoid arthritis patients are at an increased risk of cardiovascular events, and respiratory and all-cause mortality rates as compared to the general population.1 In a study, the risk of cardiovascular diseases caused due to rheumatoid arthritis was compared to that of cardiovascular disorders associated with diabetes. It showed that both the conditions raised the risk of heart diseases however rheumatoid arthritis was linked with a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases as compared to diabetes.

A cross-sectional population-based study of patients with rheumatoid arthritis was done to assess the mortality and causes of death. It was observed that rheumatoid arthritis patients had increased mortality as compared to the general population and over 40% of deaths in all groups were related to cardiovascular diseases. The risk of death in rheumatoid arthritis patients was more due to respiratory, cardiovascular, urogenital, gastrointestinal diseases, infections, and cancer as compared to the general population.2

Another study report says that rheumatoid arthritis is associated with significant cardiovascular mortality and such patients are twice as likely to experience sudden cardiac death as compared to the general population. Some of the risks can be explained by higher rates of heart failure and IHD, mostly related to inflammation. However, with the advent of DMARDs and biologics, there has been an improved cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.3

Complications Affecting Life Expectancy in Rheumatoid Arthritis

Some of the complications of rheumatoid arthritis can lead to life-threatening illnesses that can affect the life expectancy of some people. These include:

  • Chronic Inflammation: Chronic inflammation of tissues can affect major organs if left untreated. Studies have also found that conditions like secondary amyloidosis too can cause serious illness. It often presents with proteinuria, erythrocyturia, abdominal pain, and chronic diarrhea. Anti-inflammatory treatment and management of coexisting infections can help reduce the risk of development and prevent progression of the secondary amyloidosis.4
  • Immunity: Rheumatoid arthritis, being an autoimmune disease, affects the immune system. It can raise the risk of infections and in some cases, can also result in serious infections.
  • Period: The risk of complications and life-threatening outcomes is higher if the duration of the disease is longer.
  • Treatment: People with untreated rheumatoid arthritis can have a reduced life expectancy than those under treatment.
  • Risk factors: Other risk factors that can worsen conditions linked with rheumatoid arthritis too plan an important role in affecting the severity of the disease. It is believed that in people with seropositive rheumatoid arthritis (those showing positive markers for rheumatoid arthritis) the disease can be more severe than those with seronegative rheumatoid arthritis.

Although rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive condition, we can control it to an extent with the help of medical advancements and newer treatment methodologies. If the symptoms are controlled and with timely treatment, and proper management it is possible to control the complications and prolong the damage to the tissues. Timely medical intervention, and plan to control inflammation and prevent infections can reduce the risk of life-threatening complications.


Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Sheetal DeCaria, M.D. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:April 24, 2022

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