What is not yet known is, who is in the most danger, why this is the case, and how heart problems can best be prevented and detected? Studies presented recently at the American College of Rheumatology annual meeting shed new light on the connection between rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease.
Certain specific factors seem to place some rheumatoid arthritis patients at higher risk for heart problems. For example, those undergoing early menopause, having more severe rheumatoid arthritis and possessing immunity to a common virus known as cytomegalovirus.
In one study, researchers found that patients whose rheumatoid arthritis is more severe were more likely to have heart problems. That becomes true soon after rheumatoid arthritis strikes, making early treatment of rheumatoid arthritis important, according to the study authors.
Not only that, a high disease burden on the joints in the first year of rheumatoid arthritis is a very strong predictor of future heart disease. On the other hand, if the disease burden is reduced by treatment, then the risk of heart disease goes down as well.
In another study, researchers looked at a common virus called cytomegalovirus which infects many people even though they have no idea they have it. The study authors found interesting correlations between patients' immune response to the virus and development of heart disease.
If this relationship is confirmed, then it may provide a way to spot patients who are at higher risk for heart disease. For example, by using an immune profile or biomarkers related to the virus and how the immune system responds to it.
Another study found that women with rheumatoid arthritis and early menopause before the age of 45 years also seem to be at higher risk of heart disease. This is significant because roughly two-thirds of patients with rheumatoid arthritis are women and researchers have long wondered about possible hormonal influences on development of this disease.
Overall, studies clearly show that specific factors increase risk for heart disease in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.