Learn What Links These Two Conditions

March 22, 2022

Woman exercisingWhen people think of heart disease, they don’t associate it with the joint pain and swelling that can come with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). But Lakewood Ranch Medical Center internal medicine physician Kinga Porter, DO, thinks they should for this reason: people who have RA have a 50% to 75% increased risk for heart attack.*

To understand why, you need to understand arthritis. Marked by the swelling of joints, the most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and inflammatory joint conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis. While they both result in pain and stiffness, they have very different causes. Osteoarthritis is a result of the breakdown of cartilage where bones come together; RA is an immune response, in which the body attacks its own healthy cells.

“The inflammation that results from rheumatoid arthritis contributes to atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque in your arteries,” Dr. Porter explains. “When the arteries become blocked, it increases the risk of heart attack or stroke.”

Risk Factors

The biggest risk factors for RA and cardiovascular disease are age, sex, genetics, obesity and inactivity, Dr. Porter says. Exercising regularly helps reduce inflammation and some arthritic symptoms. It also improves your cardiovascular health and can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

“Exercise, stretching and a low-carb diet are helpful in reducing your risk of arthritis,” says Dr. Porter. “The most dangerous foods in the American diet are sugar and white flour, which contribute to inflammation. Focus your diet on consuming more protein to build muscle.”

Best Diets for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Some of the best diets for those dealing with RA, Dr. Porter says, are:

  • The Mediterranean diet, which focuses on whole foods, fish and nuts. “Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids decrease triglyceride levels and slow the rate of plaque growth,” she says.
  • The ketogenic diet. This low-carbohydrate diet has an anti-inflammatory effect that can help you lose weight and reduce symptoms and pain from RA.  “Supplements such as glucosamine, fish oil and omega-3 can be helpful, as well as NSAIDS and steroids to decrease inflammation,” says Dr. Porter.

“People will ask if they can have ‘cheat’ days,” Dr. Porter adds, “and I encourage them to be pretty strict in order to have positive results to reduce inflammation.“

She also encourages people to consult their doctor before starting an exercise program or diet.

*American Heart Journal, October 2013, Volume 166, Issue 4

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