Rheumatoid Arthritis Shortens Life Expectancy

People With Rheumatoid Arthritis Are Functioning Better, Not Living Longer

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Rheumatoid arthritis is regarded as a chronic disease, not a fatal disease. Most information on rheumatoid arthritis focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of the disease, along with suggestions for how to best cope with the challenges presented by a chronic condition. However, study results show the risk of mortality for people with rheumatoid arthritis is 38% greater (55% for women) than for the general population.

About the Study

The effect of rheumatoid arthritis on mortality has been the subject of various studies over the years. A report in the Journal of Rheumatology (1999 Dec;26(12):2529-33) offers more perspective on the life expectancy of rheumatoid arthritis patients as compared to the life expectancy of all Americans.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, lead by Dr. Sherine Gabriel, studied the medical records of all rheumatoid arthritis patients living in Olmsted County, Minnesota where the Mayo Clinic is located. People with rheumatoid arthritis who were at least 35 years old in 1965, 1975, or 1985 were compared. Researchers also examined the records of new cases of rheumatoid arthritis for the 30-year period from 1955 to 1985. Compiled statistics revealed that 425 new cases of rheumatoid arthritis were diagnosed between 1955 and 1985. Of this group:

  • 26.6% were men
  • 73.4% were women
  • the average age of diagnosis was 60.2 years old

    In 1965 there were 163 existing cases of rheumatoid arthritis in Olmsted County. In 1975 there were 235 cases and in 1985 there were 272 cases.

    Study Results

    The survival of the patients in the three groups was compared to survival of people without rheumatoid arthritis in the same county. All three groups, as well as the new cases, had a worse survival record than the people without rheumatoid arthritis.

    • Researchers concluded that the risk of mortality for people with rheumatoid arthritis is approximately 38% greater than for the general population.
    • The risk was even greater for women, with a 55% increased risk compared to women of the general population.

    As an example, a 50-year-old woman with rheumatoid arthritis can expect to live four fewer years (30 more years instead of 34 more years) than a woman without rheumatoid arthritis. However, a 50-year-old man with rheumatoid arthritis can expect to live 26 more years while a 50-year-old man without rheumatoid arthritis can expect to live 27 more years.​

    The Bottom Line

    Over the past four decades, life expectancy for Americans has improved but that is not reflected in the population of people who have rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers in this study concluded that although people with rheumatoid arthritis are functioning better they are not living longer.


    Journal of Rheumatology 1999 Dec;26(12):2529-33

    Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients Not Living Longer, ReutersHealth, February 22, 2000

    Life Expectancy for People With RA Has Not Improved in Four Decades, Mayo Clinic Rochester News, February 8, 2000.

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