Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a common form of arthritis that affects more than 1.3 million people in the United States alone. It can develop in anyone, but it is more common in women than men and is most likely to present in people aged 60–69 years.
RA is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in the joints. It causes inflammation, pain, swelling, stiffness, and reduced joint mobility.
People usually experience the symptoms of RA in multiple joints, and the condition typically affects both sides of the body symmetrically. The symptoms tend to occur in cycles, so people have flare-ups and periods of remission. Over time, RA can lead to permanent joint damage.
In this article, we look at the prognosis for RA, factors that can influence it, and tips for improving the quality of life with this condition.
What is the outlook for people with RA?
RA is a chronic condition for which there is currently no cure.
However, treatment can slow down the progression of the disease. It can also help reduce pain, make symptoms manageable, and prevent joint damage.
Continuing advances in RA treatment mean that the outlook for people with RA is better than ever before. Many people can live a healthy, active life with RA.
It is difficult to predict the exact impact that RA will have on a person’s life expectancy because the course of the disease differs significantly between people.
In general, it is possible for RA to reduce life expectancy by around 10 to 15 years. However, many people continue to live with their symptoms past the age of 80 or even 90 years.
With appropriate treatment, many people with RA experience only relatively mild symptoms for many years, and it places few limitations on their everyday life.
For example, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) have become an effective and widely available medication for people with RA. These drugs work by suppressing the immune system and minimizing the damage that it does to joint tissue.
Over time, people with RA often experience some of the following issues:
- worsening joint pain and swelling
- more persistent symptoms during flare-ups
- permanent joint damage
- inflammation spreading to new joints
- an increasingly restricted range of motion in affected joints
- decreased mobility
- treatment having less effect than it did initially
In comparison with other forms of arthritis, RA is particularly challenging to treat because it involves the immune system. As a result, it can cause widespread complications throughout the body, not just in the joints. These complications can contribute significantly to people’s outlook. Some people may also have systemic symptoms.
The systemic symptoms of RA include:
- weight loss
- rheumatoid nodules
It is also possible for people with RA to experience complications, including:
- inflammation in other parts of the body, such as the eyes
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
- skin conditions
- respiratory conditions
These complications are relatively uncommon, but they occur more often in advanced forms of RA. For this reason, people with advanced RA have a significantly lower life expectancy than those whose RA is less active.
People with RA can improve their outlook and slow down the progression of the condition by adopting a healthful lifestyle and actively managing the disease.
Doing this may involve:
- exercising regularly
- eating an anti-inflammatory diet
- using equipment, such as straps, to support affected joints when necessary
- losing weight, if overweight
- avoiding high-intensity sports or other activities that put excessive pressure on affected joints
- adhering to any treatments that a doctor advises, even when symptoms have not flared up
- quitting smoking, if relevant
It is difficult to predict the course of RA, and the prognosis varies greatly.
RA can reduce a person’s life expectancy by as much as 10 to 15 years, although many people live with their symptoms beyond the age of 80 or even 90 years.
Factors affecting RA prognosis include a person’s age, disease progression, and lifestyle factors, such as smoking and being overweight.
Due to advances in medications and other treatments, the prognosis for RA is better than ever before.
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