Clinical Review

Management 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 the management of traditional and nontraditional CVD cardiovascular disease risk factors in rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
  • Methods: Literature review of the management of CVD risk in RA.
  • Results: Because of the increased risk of CVD events and CVD mortality among RA patients, aggressive management of CVD risk is essential. Providers should follow national guidelines for the management of traditional CVD risk factors, including dyslipidemia, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus. Similar efforts are needed in counseling on lifestyle modifications, including smoking cessation, regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy body weight. Because higher RA disease activity is also linked with CVD risk, aggressive treatment of RA to a target of low disease activity or remission is critical. Furthermore, the selection of potentially “cardioprotective” agents such as methotrexate and tumor necrosis factor inhibitors, while limiting use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and glucocorticoids, are strategies that could be employed by rheumatologists to help mitigate CVD risk in their patients with RA.
  • Conclusion: Routine assessment of CVD risk, management of traditional CVD risk factors, counseling on healthy lifestyle habits, and aggressive treatment of RA are essential to minimize CVD risk in this population.

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

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

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a systemic autoimmune condition that contributes to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD) among affected patients. In persons with RA, the risk of incident CVD and CVD mortality are increased by approximately 50% compared with the general population.1,2 To minimize CVD risk in this population, providers must routinely assess for CVD risk factors3 and aggressively manage both traditional and nontraditional CVD risk factors.

Managing Traditional Risk Factors

As in the general population, identification and management of traditional CVD risk factors are crucial to minimize CVD risk in the RA population. A prospective study of 201 RA patients demonstrated that traditional CVD risk factors were in fact more predictive of endothelial dysfunction and carotid atherosclerosis than were disease-related inflammatory markers in RA.4 Management of traditional risk factors is detailed in the following sections, and recommendations for managing all traditional CVD risk factors are summarized in the Table.

Summary of Guidelines for the Management of Traditional Cardiovascular Risk Factors


The role of dyslipidemia in atherogenesis is well established, and as a result, lipid levels are nearly universally included in CVD risk stratification tools. However, the interpretation of lipid levels in the context of RA is challenging because of the effects of systemic inflammation on their absolute values. Compared to the general population, patients with RA have lower total cholesterol (TC) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels independent of lipid-lowering therapy.5,6 Despite this, RA patients are at increased risk for CVD. There is even some evidence to suggest a “lipid paradox” in RA, whereby lower TC (< 4 mmol/L) and LDL levels suggest an increased risk of CVD.7,8 In contrast to LDL, higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) are typically associated with reduced CVD risk, as in the general population.8,9 Interestingly, in a cohort of 16,085 RA patients and 48,499 age- and sex-matched controls, there was no significant difference in the relationship between LDL and CVD risk, suggesting that quantitative lipid levels alone may not entirely explain the CVD mortality gap in RA.9 As such, there is substantial interest in lipoprotein function within the context of CVD risk in RA. Recent investigations have identified impaired HDL function, with reduced cholesterol efflux capacity and antioxidant properties, as well as increased scavenger receptor expression and foam cell formation, in patients with RA.10,11 More research is needed to elucidate how these alterations affect CVD morbidity and mortality and how their measurement could be integrated into improved CVD risk assessment.


Next Article: