Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes pain and swelling in different joints in the body, and can also affect the internal organs.

It’s possible to live a long life with RA, yet researchers have found a connection between rheumatoid arthritis and a shorter lifespan. It’s estimated that the disease can potentially reduce life expectancy by 10 to 15 years.

There’s no cure for RA, although remission can happen. Even when the condition improves, symptoms can return, putting you at risk for complications.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, more than 50 percent of early deaths in people with RA occur due to cardiovascular disease.

Although rheumatoid arthritis can shorten a person’s lifespan, it doesn’t mean that it will. This condition affects people differently and disease progression differs from person to person, so it’s hard to predict one’s prognosis.

Read on to learn how you can reduce your risk.

If you’re diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, it’s important to understand how this condition can reduce life expectancy.

As a progressive illness, it’s not uncommon for RA symptoms to worsen over the years. It isn’t the disease itself that shortens life expectancy, though. Rather, it’s the effects of the disease.

Four major effects involve:

Immune system

As an autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis weakens the immune system, making you susceptible to infections — some serious.

Chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation can damage healthy tissues, cells, and organs, which can be life-threatening if left unchecked.

Duration of the disease

If you’re diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at a young age, you’ll live with the disease longer than someone diagnosed with the disease later in life.

The longer you have the disease, the greater the likelihood of developing complications that could shorten your lifespan.

Untreated RA

Reduced life expectancy can also occur when RA treatment doesn’t work, or if you don’t seek treatment for symptoms or complications.

According to the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, people living with untreated RA are twice as likely to die than people who are the same age without RA.

Other risk factors

Other factors that can affect life expectancy include your overall health, such as if you have other chronic conditions, your genetics, and your current lifestyle.

Other risk factors include:

Sex

According to the Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network, more women are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis than men. The disease tends to be more severe in women, too.

Seropositive RA

To diagnose RA, your doctor will run a blood test and check for two protein markers: rheumatoid factor (RF) and anti-CCP, both auto-antibodies.

If the blood test shows the presence of these proteins, you have seropositive rheumatoid arthritis. If you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis without the presence of these proteins, your doctor may diagnose seronegative rheumatoid arthritis.

Typically, people with seropositive RA have more aggressive symptoms, contributing to a shorter life expectancy.

Smoking

Smoking is a serious risk factor for developing RA and impacting the severity of the disease.

By stopping smoking, research has shown that you can reduce the risk of developing more severe RA.

Rheumatoid arthritis complications — some potentially fatal — include:

1. Heart disease

The exact link between RA and heart disease is unknown.

What researchers do know is that uncontrolled inflammation gradually reshapes the walls of the blood vessels. Plaque then builds up in the blood vessels. This causes narrowing of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, triggering high blood pressure and restricting blood flow to the heart and other organs.

High blood pressure can lead to a stroke or heart attack. Both are life-threatening. Pieces of plaque can also break off, causing a blood clot.

People with rheumatoid arthritis are also 60 percent more likely to develop atrial fibrillation. This is an irregular heartbeat that leads to restricted blood flow, raising the risk for blood clots, heart attack, or stroke.

2. Lung problems

Inflammation doesn’t only affect the joints, it can also affect the lungs. This can lead to lung disease and lung scarring.

These conditions can cause:

Progressive lung disease can make it difficult to breathe and people with it have a high mortality rate. Some people with RA may need a lung transplant to improve lung function and breathing.

3. Infections

A weak immune system due to RA increases the risk for infections like flu and pneumonia. Also, certain drugs used to treat RA may increase your risk for infection.

With rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system attacks your joints. These medications can help suppress your immune system, but a weaker immune system also increases your risk for infection.

4. Cancer

A weak immune system also puts you at risk for lymphoma. This is a type of cancer that begins in the white blood cells.

Lymphocytes are white blood cells that are responsible for immune responses. Lymphoma starts in these cells.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), people who have a weaker immune system also have a higher risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

5. Anemia

Chronic inflammation can also cause anemia, which is the reduction of red blood cells.

Anemia affects how well oxygen travels through your body. Low levels of red blood cells force your heart to work harder and compensate for low oxygen levels.

If left untreated, anemia can cause heart problems and heart failure.

Despite the risk, several strategies can improve your quality of life and reduce the risk of serious complications:

  • Exercise. Physical activity doesn’t only improve joint mobility, it can reduce inflammation and pain. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Choose gentle exercises that don’t cause further joint pain like walking, swimming, or biking.
  • Lose weight. Being overweight or obese puts more pressure on your joints, increasing pain and inflammation. Talk to your doctor about a healthy weight based on your age and height. Take steps to lose extra weight.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Consume more anti-inflammatory foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to reduce pain and strengthen your immune system.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking can lead to lung inflammation and raise your blood pressure, putting you at risk for heart attack or stroke. Choose nicotine replacement therapy to quit, or ask your doctor about prescription medications to help stop cravings.
  • Follow your treatment plan and take medication as directed. Follow up with your doctor to monitor your progress. If symptoms don’t improve, your doctor may need to adjust your treatment.
  • Get a flu shot. Due to your risk for infection, talk to your doctor about getting an annual flu shot. This can protect against influenza and complications like pneumonia, ear infections, and bronchitis.
  • Schedule regular checkups. Don’t skip your annual physicals. Routine health screenings can identify problems early, such as irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and lymphoma.
  • Reduce stress. Stress is an RA trigger. Chronic stress can prompt flares and inflammation. Practice stress management techniques. Know your limits, learn how to say no, practice deep breathing exercises, and get plenty of sleep.

You may also want to speak to your doctor about getting the vaccination for pneumonia. It’s often recommended for people with certain health conditions, including RA.

Rheumatoid arthritis can progress, so talk to your doctor about new or unusual symptoms. These include:

  • shortness of breath
  • a lump on your neck
  • increased pain or swelling
  • fatigue
  • flu-like symptoms that don’t improve
  • unexplained weight loss
  • splinter hemorrhages around finger nails (vasculitis)

You should also see a doctor if your current therapy doesn’t improve your symptoms, or if RA starts to have a negative impact on the quality of your life.

Although rheumatoid arthritis may shorten life expectancy by 10 to 15 years, the disease affects people differently, and different factors play a role in lifespan.

You can’t predict this disease. But while some people experience serious complications, others go on to live long, healthy lives without complications.

Even though there’s no way to predict the progression of rheumatoid arthritis, treatments have improved over the years. This allows many diagnosed with the condition to live long, healthy lives into their 80s or 90s, with less complications of the disease.

With an early diagnosis and treatment, it’s possible to achieve remission and enjoy life to the fullest.