A Surprising Link Between Multiple Chronic Illnesses

New research suggests that people who have inflammatory bowel disease or diabetes may have a higher risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Find out what we know about the connection so far, and what you can do to lower your odds of developing RA.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Among the many joys that come along with having a chronic illness—you know, so many joys—is that having one lifelong condition often puts you at risk for developing another. In fact, 41 percent of Americans have more than one chronic condition, according to a study by RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank.

Now, new research shows that people who have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or type 1 diabetes may be more likely to go on to develop rheumatoid arthritis (RA) as well, according to a new study of 821 RA patients published in the journal Annals of Rheumatic Diseases.

It’s well established that people with RA often develop other conditions (called comorbidities), like heart disease or chronic respiratory disease. But in this study, researchers found that people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis were more likely to already have diagnoses of IBD or type 1 diabetes compared with any other comorbid conditions.

"Our results suggest that inflammatory bowel disease and type 1 diabetes may predispose to rheumatoid arthritis development, which merits further study,"said study author Vanessa Kronzer, M.D., an internist at the Mayo Clinic School of Graduate Medical Education in Rochester, MN.

One theory about how IBD and type 1 diabetes could make someone more likely to develop RA later? There may be a shared defect of the immune system that causes these conditions.

Can You Reduce Your Risk of RA?

So what if you already have type 1 diabetes or IBD—or both? While there’s no way to 100% guarantee you won’t get RA later, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk and to improve your overall health.

One major risk factor of RA is smoking, according to the Arthritis Foundation. So if you smoke, make the effort to quit right away. (Here are some helpful tips from the Cleveland Clinic to get you started.)

Obesity can also up your chances of developing RA, per the CDC. Prioritizing regular exercise and healthy eating (go plant-based!) can help you in your weight loss goals. If you have IBD, exercise can seem especially daunting—but we’ve got you covered: Here are some solutions to common workout fears for people living with IBD.

Unfortunately, most other RA risk factors are out of your control—including your genetics, age (people in their 60s are most likely to get RA), and sex (women are two to three times more likely to get it than men). But working to adopt a healthy lifestyle, and managing your other conditions like IBD or diabetes, can go a long way in improving your overall well-being. Here are some great resources on HealthCentral for managing these other conditions:

IBD:

How to Find an IBD Specialist

10 Ways to Help Manage IBD Without Drugs

Top 10 Apps to Help You Manage IBD

Diabetes:

10 Best Apps for Diabetes Management

Surprising Foods That Spike Your Blood Sugar

Last, but not least: At your next check-up, it’s worth talking with your doctor about your risk of RA—your doctor can help monitor you for symptoms and, if you develop any, get you started on treatment ASAP.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.