Jennifer Freeman, MD
Jennifer Freeman, MD

Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) in 2008 from UT Health San Antonio, Surgeon at TRACC Dallas

Oct 27, 2018 4 min read

RA Facts: What are the Latest Statistics on Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a complex disease that affects each patient differently. People from all ethnic backgrounds are at risk of developing RA. It is the third most common type of arthritis behind osteoarthritis and gout.

facts and statistics

Below are some RA facts and statistics provided by ongoing disease research.

RA Facts and Statistics

RA is a chronic disease affecting over 1.3 million Americans and as much as 1% of the worldwide population. The specific cause of RA is not known, and as a result there is no known cure for the disease.

Researchers do know, however, that RA is the result of an autoimmune disorder. It is one of the most common autoimmune disorders – more common than psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and lupus. RA symptoms are triggered when a person’s antibodies mistakenly attack the normal synovial joint fluid, causing chronic inflammation.

Women are up to three times more likely to develop RA than men. Women are also more likely to develop the disease at a younger age than men. RA generally begins to affect people between the ages of 30 and 60 years old. The average person doesn’t develop symptoms of RA until they reach their 60’s.

RA Risk Factors

There are four categories of potential risk factors associated with the onset of RA. These categories include (but are not limited to):

Genetics

Those with a first-degree family member (parent, sibling, etc) diagnosed with RA are at roughly four times greater risk of developing RA themselves as compared to the general population. While this is a notable increase in risk, it’s not enough to conclusively state that RA is hereditary. There are many patients who develop RA without any close relatives being affected.

Environmental

It has been proposed that exposure to environmental risks could trigger the disease. Pollution, chemicals, secondhand smoke, or even traumatic events could be enough to stimulate an immune response and trigger RA symptoms.

Hormonal

Due to the staggering proportion of women who develop RA, some experts feel that there is a strong link between female hormonal changes and the onset of RA symptoms. As levels of pregnancy hormones, estrogen and progesterone, decrease in women with age, the hormonal shift could be a potential disease trigger.

Lifestyle

Smoking is the most strongly associated risk factor when it comes to the onset of RA in patients. A history of smoking is said to increase the risk of developing RA by as much 2.4%. The increased risk associated with smoking is most strongly associated with seropositive RA patients (those whose blood tests are positive for anti-CCP and rheumatoid factor).

Facts and Statistics About RA Symptoms

RA has a very specific set of clinical symptoms that indicate the onset of the disease. The most common initial clinical symptoms of RA include:

  • Joint pain and stiffness
  • Joint swelling and redness
  • Symptoms affecting multiple (four or more) joints including the hands and fingers
  • Symmetrical symptoms affecting both the left and right sides of the body
  • Morning stiffness lasting longer than 30 minutes
  • Symptoms lasting longer than six consecutive months

Doctors will perform a physical examination, blood tests, as well as imaging tests in order to consider all possible diagnoses. Doctors will also look for additional symptoms which indicate increased inflammation such as:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Low-grade fever
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Illness and malaise
  • Depression

There are four main stages of RA progression beginning with the onset of clinical symptoms to the end stage, which will be reached if appropriate treatment is not applied.

RA Facts and Statistics about Diagnosis

In order to reach a RA diagnosis, doctors look at multiple criteria. Doctors must take into consideration the following:

  • Clinical symptoms observed through physical examination
  • Family and personal medical history
  • Blood test results for rheumatoid factor and anti-CCP antibodies as well as inflammation levels
  • Imaging tests detecting bone erosion and joint inflammation levels

Seropositive vs. Seronegative Types of RA

As many as 80% of RA patients test positive for an antibody known as rheumatoid factor. Another 60% to 70% of RA patients are estimated to also be seropositive, meaning they test positive for the antibody called anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) and rheumatoid factor. This is one of two main types of RA.

This means that as many as 40% of patients diagnosed with RA do not test positive for either antibody. In this case, the patient is diagnosed with seronegative RA.

Life Expectancy Statistics

In general, RA patients are thought to have a shorter life expectancy by as much as 10 to 15 years. That being said, many patients continue to live with symptoms of RA well into their 80’s or 90’s.

RA fatalities are typically the result of medical complications that develop in addition to the traditional clinical disease symptoms. Over half of RA patient deaths were the result of heart disease and cardiovascular-related fatalities, brought on by complications of the inflammation found in RA.

RA Complications

Many RA patients develop other medical complications in addition to the traditional clinical manifestations of joint pain and inflammation. Some of the most commonly reported complications include:

  • Anemia (low blood cell count)
  • Respiratory issues
  • Eye inflammation
  • Dry mouth and salivary gland issues (Sjogren’s Syndrome)
  • Extra-articular symptoms such as nodules on the hands, elbows, feet, eyes, lungs, and other organs

Juvenile RA

It is estimated that as many as 300,000 children in the United States suffer from juvenile RA. Juvenile RA affects children up to 17 years old. Symptoms may start as early as two years old.

Juvenile arthritis symptoms can persist into adulthood and change over time. In many cases, juvenile RA symptoms disappear and do not return in adulthood.

RA Treatment Facts and Statistics

RA symptoms can be treated through a combination of the following:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
  • Biologic response modifiers
  • Physical and occupational therapy
  • Healthy diet and regular exercise
  • Joint replacement surgery

An individual RA patient may pay up to $20,000 annually in treatment costs. Treatment that begins as early as possible is more effective at managing symptoms and reducing pain.