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Experts say people with rheumatoid arthritis should be routinely checked for heart disease, sleep apnea, and blood clots. Getty Images
  • Researchers say people who have type 1 diabetes, a history of blood clots, or inflammatory bowel disease have a higher risk for developing rheumatoid arthritis.
  • They also report that people with rheumatoid arthritis have a higher risk for blood clots, heart disease, and sleep apnea.
  • Experts say this research may lead to a better understanding of the causes of rheumatoid arthritis and to earlier detection of the disease.

No one knows what causes rheumatoid arthritis — but Mayo Clinic researchers may be one step closer to this discovery with their latest findings.

A Mayo Clinic study, which was published Nov. 19, looked at 3,276 people, 821 of whom have rheumatoid arthritis.

Researchers concluded that people who have type 1 diabetes, a history of blood clots, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have a higher risk for developing rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Other risk factors for RA include family history, tobacco use, being female, having overweight or obesity, and a history of taking antibiotics.

The researchers also noted that people with RA have an increased risk for developing heart disease, blood clots, and sleep apnea.

“We found that comorbidities accumulate in an accelerated fashion after diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis,” Vanessa Kronzer, MD, a clinician investigator rheumatology fellow at the Mayo Clinic and the study’s corresponding author, said in a statement.

“We also found that autoimmune diseases and epilepsy may predispose to development of rheumatoid arthritis, while heart disease and other conditions may develop as a result of rheumatoid arthritis,” she added.

In short, this means these findings could have important implications for understanding how RA develops.

The researchers said this could potentially lead to earlier detection and screening initiatives.

“These findings have important implications for RA pathogenesis, early detection, and recommended screening,” the researchers wrote in their study.

“The findings have important implications for understanding how rheumatoid arthritis develops,” the Mayo Clinic statement concluded. “It also could lead to earlier detection and screening initiatives for other diseases and conditions.”

Clinic officials noted that RA affects the lining of the joints and can eventually damage the lungs, heart, and blood vessels.

They added that blood clots were detected in a number of study participants before there was an RA diagnosis.

They also reported a “strong” association with type 1 diabetes before RA diagnosis.

“Our findings suggest that people with certain conditions, such as type 1 diabetes or inflammatory bowel disease, should be carefully monitored for rheumatoid arthritis,” Kronzer said.

“In addition, people who have rheumatoid arthritis, and their healthcare providers, should have heightened suspicion and a low threshold to screen for cardiovascular disease, blood clots, and sleep apnea,” she said.

People who live with RA were intrigued by the Mayo Clinic study.

“What came first, the chicken or the egg? The RA or the blood clot?” Regan McComb, a West Virginia student who has RA, told Healthline. “I think this is interesting, but now I wonder which of my conditions came first.”

McComb says she believes her RA medications are the cause of some of her coexisting problems.

Eileen Miller of Washington says she has both diabetes and RA.

“I got diabetes first, then the rheumatoid came after,” Miller told Healthline. “I never thought there was a link between the two, but maybe there is.”

The Arthritis Foundation has information about the comorbidities that can come along with RA on their website.

Diabetes is mentioned as one of them.

“People with diagnosed diabetes are nearly twice as likely to have arthritis, indicating a diabetes-arthritis connection,” the foundation notes.

Kronzer said research is underway to investigate family histories of comorbidities associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

Researchers will also use DNA samples from the Mayo Clinic Biobank to try to identify genetic links between RA and other diseases.