Start Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment ASAP—For Your Heart

Start Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment ASAP—For Your Heart

You’ve just been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Starting your treatment as soon as possible can protect your joints—and your heart. That’s right: Besides swollen, achy joints, rheumatoid arthritis also ups your chance of heart disease. The good news is, if you start your treatment early, you can reduce your risk.

Heart disease comes on fast after a RA diagnosis. In a 2015 study of people who had a stroke or heart attack related to RA, the first such “event” happened less than five years, on average, after the RA diagnosis. In one in 10 people, it occurred in the first year. It’s thought that inflammation in RA causes plaque to form in blood vessels, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. It may also damage the heart muscle itself, bringing on heart failure

The same study looked at which factors increase the risk of heart disease in the first year after a RA diagnosis. People who had “high disease activity” (translation: more inflammation and more painful, swollen joints) and who missed a lot of work due to their RA were at higher risk. So were those who smoked or were obese.

Help for Your Heart
There’s good news, though. Heart deaths from RA have fallen 30% in the last 20 years, according to a report from the 2015 meeting of the American College of Rheumatology. The doctor giving the presentation said that “early and aggressive treatment” for RA is likely the reason for the decline.

That means starting treatment right away with medications that fight the inflammation at its source, rather than just relieving pain. These drugs, known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), are usually the core of RA treatment, because they prevent or reduce joint damage. They include methotrexate, sulfasalazine and drugs known as biologics.

What Else Can I Do?
A heart-healthy lifestyle is extra-important for people with RA. Here are a few ways to take control of your own health and keep your heart happy.

  • Work it out: Exercise is good for your joints AND your heart. Just be sure to know your limitations and tailor your gym sessions around your RA.
  • Hook some fish oil: Fish oil helps slow the buildup of artery-clogging plaque, and it fights inflammation and joint stiffness.
  • Ditch the burger and fries: The Mediterranean diet is a better choice because it mops up inflammation. Plus, it’s delicious and good for your heart, too.

Medically reviewed in April 2020.

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