Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lung Disease

A new study from researchers at Harvard University has reported that women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have a higher risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is what’s known as an “umbrella term,” which means that it’s used to describe not one, but a range of lung diseases, such as bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. As you might expect, breathlessness is one of the major signs of COPD.

The researchers got their data from the National Health Service, which had enrolled more than 120,000 women in 1976 and monitored their experiences with RA and COPD through 2014. The subjects of the study were matched with healthy control subjects and completed questionnaires about their health status every two years. After adjusting for such factors as age, smoking, diet, body-mass index (BMI), physical activity, and menopause, the researchers concluded that women with RA had a 68 percent greater risk for COPD than the controls did.

The authors of the study said the lungs are important in RA and pointed out that inflammation in the lungs might act as a “trigger” for the immune tolerance breakdown that leads to the development of RA. They also said that smoking, along with environmental factors, have been implicated in RA. Their study reported that women who developed RA were more likely to have been smokers than the women who did not develop RA. Also, while about 5 percent of the women in the control group developed COPD, some 8 percent of the women with RA developed COPD. One of the most interesting findings concerned women who never smoked. Among those who never smoked, 3 percent of the RA group developed COPD. But in the control group who never smoked, only about 2 percent did. This finding led the researchers to speculate that factors other than smoking were causing RA patients to develop COPD at higher rates that controls. They pointed out the need for further studies to investigate what these other factors might be. The possibilities included genetics and the dynamics that affect autoimmunity and inflammation.

Want to learn more about rheumatoid arthritis? Read “Steps to Manage Rheumatoid Arthritis Flare-Ups” and “Managing Sleep Problems in RA.”

Joseph Gustaitis is a freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area.

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