What Seniors Should Know about Rheumatoid Arthritis


As we get older, there are some factors about senior health and wellness that we can control. We can make a point of eating balanced meals, getting enough exercise, taking medications on time, investing in medical alert technology, and so much more. But there are some things we can’t control at any age, and one of those things is autoimmune diseases. These diseases are the result of something happening in the body that leads to the immune system revving up to fight against our own bodies.

Such is the case with rheumatoid arthritis. This autoimmune disease is an inflammatory disorder that attacks the joints and other parts of the body. The more you learn about rheumatoid arthritis, the better able you will be to spot the symptoms – and catching it early can help alleviate many of the symptoms and potentially give you several good, trouble-free years of living with the condition.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

The Mayo Clinic defines rheumatoid arthritis as “a chronic inflammatory disorder that can affect more than just your joints. In some people, the condition can damage a wide variety of body systems, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart, and blood vessels.”

Rheumatoid arthritis isn’t like other types of arthritis that can occur due to wearing down the joints over time. Instead, rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of the joints, leading to swelling that can be painful. The inflammation can erode the bone and even deform the joints after several years of constant pressure. This painful condition doesn’t stay limited to the joints, however – it can also lead to damage in other parts of the body.

Facts About Rheumatoid Arthritis

Many factors can contribute to rheumatoid arthritis, including lifestyle choices, the environment, or your genetics. Regardless of the reasons why it happens, the progression is often the same; within the first year or two, the disease is mild and very manageable. But by the time a decade has passed, 60% of individuals with the disease are facing some sort of disability, especially if their condition hasn’t been treated vigorously[1].

According to Healthline, about 1.5 million people in the United States live with the condition, and out of every 10,000 people, 71 new cases are diagnosed each year. The disease affects women twice as often as it does men. In women, the condition tends to show up between the ages of 30 and 60; it shows up a bit later in men.

Unfortunately, those with rheumatoid arthritis face a 60% increased risk of heart attack or stroke after one year of diagnosis[2]. That’s because it can affect the pericardium, which is the lining around the heart, and the vascular system throughout the body. Inflammation and infections can occur in the lungs, heart, vascular system, blood, eyes, skin, and more. In fact, infections are believed to be responsible for up to 25% of deaths from rheumatoid arthritis[3].

The Signs of Rheumatoid Arthritis

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis might be very mild at first. They can include[4]:

·         Joints that are tender and swollen

·         A feeling of warmth in the joint

·         Joint stiffness, especially in the morning or after you’ve been still for a while

·         Fatigue

·         Low-grade fever

·         Loss of appetite and weight loss

·         Anemia

·         Small firm lumps, known as rheumatoid nodules, beneath the skin of the elbows, hands, and ankles

The symptoms usually begin as “flares” that last for one or two days, or up to a few weeks. You might feel mild pain in a certain joint, a feeling of warmth, or a bit of swelling. These flares are almost always in the smaller joints at first, such as those in your fingers and toes. It can be mild enough to chalk it up to some injury you must have sustained and then forgot about. The flare goes away and you might not think about it again. But a few months down the road, it happens again. Then it starts to happen with more frequency. And it might move to other areas of the body, such as your ankles, hips, knees, elbows, and wrists.

That’s why it’s important to let your doctor know of any odd issues with your health that you have experienced over the last several months before your visit. You might not put the incidents together, but a doctor could, especially after running basic blood tests.

What Causes It?

It’s hard to know exactly what causes rheumatoid arthritis, though doctors do believe there’s a genetic component. This might not be because your genes are carrying something that triggers the condition, but rather, they might make your body more likely to react to environmental issues. For instance, infection by a certain virus or bacteria might send your immune system into overdrive, and it doesn’t stop working against the “invader” even after the invader is gone.

Though doctors don’t know what causes it, there are some risk factors that are clear about increasing your odds of developing it. According to the CDC, these include:

·         Gender. Women are more likely to develop the condition.

·         Family history. If someone in your family already has it, you are more likely to have it too.

·         Age. It typically starts between the ages of 30 and 60.

·         Obesity. The more weight you carry, the more your odds of developing it increase.

·         Smoking. Just as with most other things in life, smoking can increase your risk, especially if you already have a family history of it.

·         Not giving birth. Women who have never given birth seem to be at higher risk; interestingly, women who have breastfed are less likely to develop the disease.

·         Early exposure to toxins. There is some evidence that those who are exposed to certain toxins as children, such as those who breathed in secondhand smoke, are at higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis as adults.

Additional Risks of Rheumatoid Arthritis

There are other risks that come along with a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Keep in mind that no matter the complications, going to your doctor on a regular basis and following up with all senior health services, medications, and recommended treatments can help you avoid or reduce the worst of the symptoms. The Mayo Clinic reports that these are some potential problems[5]:

·         Rheumatoid nodules. We mentioned these earlier, as they typically form around the pressure points, such as the elbows. But sometimes they can cause problems if they develop in your heart or lungs.

·         Sjogren’s syndrome. This condition reduces the moisture in your eyes and mouth.

·         Increased risk of infection. Some of the medications used to treat the disease can lead to a compromised immune system. It’s vitally important to protect yourself from potential infections by getting your vaccinations. This is often easily available at a senior health clinic.

·         Osteoporosis. This condition of weakened bones that are more prone to fracture seems to be more common among those with rheumatoid arthritis.

·         Heart problems. Your odds of hardened arteries go up, as does the possibility of inflammation of the pericardium.

·         Lung problems. Inflammation in the lungs can lead to scarring, which can lead to chronic shortness of breath.

·         Carpel tunnel syndrome. As inflammation compresses the nerves in your wrist, you can develop pain in your hands and fingers.

·         Lymphoma. This group of blood cancers is more likely if you have rheumatoid arthritis.

·         Abnormal body composition. Even among those who have a normal body mass index, this condition can cause higher amounts of fat versus lean mass.

Two other potential issues can arise as well: These include disability that makes it difficult to work and increased fall risk.

If you have a job that is physically demanding, you might not be able to keep up with that demand as your condition progresses. You might have to change to a new position, work fewer hours, or find that you can’t work at all[6]. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activity. If you fall into this definition, you might qualify for disability benefits[7].

As the condition progresses, you might find that you are at a greater risk of falls. This is because your balance can shift and it can become difficult to move in the ways you once did, especially if rheumatoid arthritis attacks the joints in your lower body.

An Alert1 Medical Alert can ensure that assistance is a single touch away. If you suffer a fall, press the button on the pendant, bracelet or watch to be connected to our Command Center, where friendly professionals will determine what help you need and send it right away. And if you can’t press the button, a medical alert system with fall detection can use sensors inside the device to detect falls. The device can then contact the Command Center on its own to get you the help you need.

It really is that simple, and for such an affordable price, it’s a great way to keep your peace of mind as rheumatoid arthritis advances.

How You Can Be More Comfortable

There are numerous treatments available for rheumatoid arthritis that can slow the progression of the disease and improve your quality of life. Your doctor and rheumatologist can create a treatment plan that works for you. In addition to following their advice, try these options[8]:

·         Stay active. Regular physical activity can help keep your joints in better shape. The usual rule of thumb is to exercise 30 minutes a day, five times a week. It’s always okay to break up that time into 10-minute blocks if it makes it easier for you.

·         Stop smoking. Smoking can make your condition worse, makes it harder to be physically active, and can lead to other issues, such as heart and lung problems.

·         Take classes. Specialized physical activity programs for those with arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, are available at places like the YMCA or community centers. Sign up to learn the best ways to move your body to protect and help your joints, and incorporate this into your senior care plan.

·         Get empowered. Join an RA group at your local hospital or community center to discuss and share how to handle your symptoms, manage pain, make day-to-day life easier, and more.

·         Keep a healthy weight. The more weight you carry, the harder your joints have to work. If you have rheumatoid arthritis that can mean that your joints hurt even more. Talk to your doctor about reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.

The American College of Rheumatology points out something very important: those who are diagnosed with this condition might face worry, depression, and feelings of isolation. These feelings are normal but can hinder your quality of life. It’s vitally important to talk with your doctor about how you are feeling and get treated for depression if necessary.

Staying Safe as Your Body Changes

As your joints change, you might have issues with balance. The pain that emanates from your joints can also make it tough to move around, and you might try to compensate by moving in a different way. All of these things can create a fall risk. Investing in an emergency response solution can help provide the peace of mind you need to be able to deal with the life changes that rheumatoid arthritis can bring. A medical alert system with fall detection can be an ideal choice you make for yourself at the beginning of this journey before your symptoms begin to worsen. Knowing that help is a single touch away can be reassuring as you navigate the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.