Starting drug treatment early in rheumatoid arthritis patients may reduce their risk of heart disease, a new study suggests.
Rheumatoid arthritis at least doubles the risk of heart disease due to its links with atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries), heart failure and stroke.
The new U.K. study found a link between early rheumatoid arthritis treatment and improvements in vascular stiffness (a gradual loss of elasticity that's an early sign of heart disease).
"Our research shows that even at the earliest stages of rheumatoid arthritis, there is increased vascular stiffness in people with no or minimal traditional CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk factors, such as hypertension, high cholesterol or smoking," study co-leader Sven Plein, a professor of cardiology, said in a University of Leeds news release.
The research highlights the importance of starting rheumatoid arthritis treatment early in order to also lessen the risk of developing heart disease, Plein said.
The study included 82 rheumatoid arthritis patients with no known heart problems who underwent MRI heart scans. The scans revealed that they had increased vascular stiffness in the aorta compared to people without rheumatoid arthritis.
The patients also had evidence of heart scarring and changes in the wall of the left ventricle (the heart's main pumping chamber), suggesting their heart problems began before their arthritis diagnosis.
After their heart scans, the patients were prescribed rheumatoid arthritis drugs. A year later, 71 patients had follow-up heart scans. These patients showed improvement in the vascular stiffness of the aorta, according to the study.
The results were published online recently in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.
"The rheumatoid arthritis [RA] treatment improved vascular stiffness, regardless of how the patient responded to the RA medication," Plein said.
"These improvements in vascular stiffness independently of response to RA treatment were unexpected," he added. "They imply that, in addition to suppressing inflammation, RA treatments may influence CVD risk through other means."
However, while the study found an association, it could not prove cause and effect.