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Rheumatoid arthritis and your heart

Taking good care of rheumatoid arthritis goes hand in hand with good cardiovascular care, doctors say.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you know all about stiff, painful, inflamed joints. But you may be less aware of another, more dangerous aspect of the disease: its impact on your heart and blood vessels.

Having rheumatoid arthritis puts you at increased risk for developing heart disease. That's at least in part because rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease. And inflammation, wherever it comes from, is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, inflammatory cells get into the walls of blood vessels where they make a protein that promotes more inflammation. Inflammation also reshapes the walls of the blood vessel, making any plaque deposits more prone to rupture. A rupture can lead to a heart attack.

If the plaque forms in an artery that supplies blood and oxygen to the brain, a blockage could lead to a stroke.

That's why it's important to seek treatment for RA as soon as possible.

How is RA diagnosed?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your doctor can diagnose RA by reviewing your symptoms.

Symptoms of RA include:

  • Pain or aching in more than one joint.
  • Stiffness in more than one joint.
  • Tenderness and swelling in more than one joint.
  • The same symptoms on both sides of the body (such as both hands or both knees).
  • Weight loss.
  • Fever.
  • Fatigue or tiredness.
  • Weakness.

Your doctor will also do a physical exam and order x-rays and lab tests.

Talk about your heart

If you are diagnosed with RA, talk with your doctor about your risk for heart disease. Your risk may also be increased if you have diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, and if you are inactive, are overweight or smoke. All six of these are independent risk factors for heart disease.

In general, the more severe your RA, the more likely you are to develop cardiovascular problems like a heart attack, stroke and heart failure. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself. These include:

  • Losing excess weight. Maintaining a healthy weight helps you reduce your risk of both heart disease and diabetes.
  • Staying active—aim for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week.
  • Lowering your cholesterol, if necessary.
  • Quitting smoking, if you smoke.

Work with your doctor or rheumatologist to get your rheumatoid arthritis under control so you have the lowest amount of systemic inflammation possible.

reviewed 11/1/2019
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