Rheumatoid Arthritis and Heart Disease: Reducing Risk Factors

Christine Miller Health Guide
  • Although I’ve had RA for most of my 31 years, until I read the Australian study this week, I never knew that people with RA have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and a higher risk of death from it than people who don’t have RA. Perhaps my primary doctors and rheumatologists have never mentioned this because I’m still young. But it scared me, especially because my family has a history of high cholesterol and three of my grandparents had heart attacks late in life. My parents and several older siblings are all taking cholesterol medication.

    The timing of this article and my research is perfect. I just had a fasting cholesterol test done two weeks ago and even though I make efforts to eat healthy foods and exercise at least twice a week, my cholesterol has gone up over the last year. It's now up to 252. Both my LDL and HDL (good and bad cholesterol) and for some reason my triglycerides really spiked. My primary physician immediately insisted that I begin taking fish oil supplements to bring down my triglycerides and make an effort to eat more foods with omega-3 fatty acids. I already drink soy milk and I try to eat fish and flax in various forms. But I apparently don’t do this often enough, or I splurge on unhealthy foods too often (which I admit is rather frequently).

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    So I will have to examine the rest of my diet and look for more ways to incorporate these items, and find ways to fight my cravings for fast food hamburgers and gourmet cheeses. If I don't bring down my cholesterol, I will have to begin taking medication for it, even though she would prefer to wait a few years. But she never mentioned my RA in our whole discussion. She made these recommendations based on my cholesterol levels and family history. I wonder if she is aware of the additional risks for people with RA and if this would change her recommendations for me.

    On the bright side, I also read in the July/August issue of Arthritis Today, published by the Arthritis Foundation, that being very careful about adopting a healthy lifestyle reduces the development of atherosclerosis. This is the hardening of arteries through the build-up pf plaques that cause heart attacks, blood clots and strokes. Plaque is cause by build-ups of fats and cholesterol in the vessels. Inflammation of the vessels from RA can increase the build-up because the swollen vessels create a trap. The study found that people who have more severe RA, including a higher number of deformed joints, a high C-reactive protein level, a high SED rate, or take corticosteroids all had plaque in their carotid arteries. However, those who also had cardiovascular risk factors had a higher risk of developing atherosclerosis than the patients with only those RA symptoms. The researchers stressed that it is important for people with RA and other inflammatory disorders to make lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.

    The article also suggests some ways to begin making these changes:

    • Not smoking.


    • Reducing the amount of sodium in one’s diet.


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    • Keeping to a structured exercise program or being more active in your daily tasks (e.g taking the stairs instead of the elevator).



    Of course, the article also recommends a healthy diet containing less than 300 mg of cholesterol a day and limiting ones fat intake. Polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oils are recommended, such as olive oil. And foods with trans fats, such as fried foods, or saturated fats like butter, are discouraged. Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids are also thought to be beneficial. See my article from May titled, “The Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids” for ideas on how to incorporate these into your diet.

    Read Christine's blog about the study.

Published On: July 21, 2006