Clinical Review

Assessment of Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Rheumatoid Arthritis



From the Division of Rheumatology & Immunology, University of Nebraska Medical Center, and Veterans Affairs Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System, Omaha, NE.


  • Objective: To review cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk assessment in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
  • Methods: Literature review of the assessment of CVD risk in RA.
  • Results: CVD is the leading cause of death among RA patients. Because of the increased risk of CVD events and CVD mortality in patients with RA, regular assessment of CVD risk and aggressive management of CVD risk in these patients is crucial. CVD risk estimation typically centers on the use of well-established CVD risk calculators. Most CVD risk scores from the general population do not contain RA-related factors predictive of CVD but have had more extensive performance testing, while novel RA-derived CVD risk scores that incorporate RA-related factors have had limited external validity testing. Neither set of risk scores incorporates novel imaging modalities or serum biomarkers, which are most likely to be helpful among individuals at intermediate risk.
  • Conclusion: Primary care and rheumatology providers must be aware of the increased risk of CVD in RA, a risk that approaches that of diabetic patients. Routine assessment of CVD risk is an essential first step in minimizing CVD risk in this population. Until the performance of RA-specific CVD risk scores can be better established, we recommend the use of nationally endorsed CVD risk scores, with the frequency of reassessment based on CVD risk.

Keywords: rheumatoid arthritis; cardiovascular disease; cardiovascular risk assessment.

Editor’s note: This article is part 1 of a 2-part article. “Management of Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Rheumatoid Arthritis” was published in the March/April 2019 issue.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, autoimmune inflammatory arthritis affecting up to 1% of the US population that can lead to joint damage, functional disability, and reduced quality of life.1 In addition to articular involvement, systemic inflammation accompanying RA may lead to extra-articular manifestations and increase the risk of premature death.2 Cardiovascular disease (CVD), accounting for nearly half of all deaths among RA patients, is now recognized as a critical extra-articular manifestation of RA.2,3 As such, assessment and management of CVD risk is essential to the comprehensive care of the RA patient. This article reviews the approach to assessing CVD risk in patients with RA; the management of both traditional and RA-specific risk factors is discussed in a separate article.

Scope of the Problem

In a large meta-analysis of observational studies that included more than 111,000 patients with RA, CVD-related mortality rates were 1.5 times higher among RA patients than among general population controls.4 The risk of overall CVD, including nonfatal events, is similar; a separate meta-analysis of observational studies that included more than 41,000 patients with RA calculated a pooled relative risk for incident CVD of 1.48.5 Individual analyses identified heightened risk of acute coronary syndrome (ACS), cerebrovascular accident, and congestive heart failure (CHF).5 Perhaps more illustrative of the magnitude of the problem, the risk of CVD in RA approaches that observed among individuals with diabetes mellitus.6,7

Coronary artery disease (CAD) accounts for a significant portion of the CVD risk in RA, but its presentation may be atypical in RA patients. RA patients are at higher risk of suffering unrecognized myocardial infarction (MI) and sudden cardiac death.8 The reasons for silent ischemia in RA are not fully known, but have been hypothesized to include imbalances of inflammatory cytokines, alterations in pain sensitization, or the female predominance of RA (with women more often presenting with atypical symptoms of myocardial ischemia).9 Alarmingly, a retrospective chart review study reported that RA patients admitted for an acute MI were less likely to receive appropriate reperfusion therapy as well as secondary prevention with beta-blockers and lipid-lowering agents.10 Even with appropriate therapy, long-term outcomes such as mortality and recurrent ischemic events are more likely to occur in RA patients after acute MI.11-13


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