April 12, 2023

The Impact of Arthritis on Your Heart

Arthritis doesn’t just affect your joints — it can lead to heart disease as well. Learn more and explore 4 tips to improve your heart and joint health.

Whether we look at it from a scientific perspective or an artistic one — our heart underlies everything in life. What many don’t know is that arthritis and heart health actually have a cyclical relationship. Poor heart health often worsens arthritis, and arthritis can negatively impact our hearts over the long-term.

Research has found that the inflammation that characterizes chronic pain diseases like arthritis takes its toll on the heart over time, increasing the risk of:

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Stroke

  • Atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries)

  • High blood pressure

  • Atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat)

  • Heart attack

  • Heart failure

How much does arthritis affect your heart?

According to The Arthritis Foundation, most types of arthritis are linked with negative impacts on the heart.

  • Osteoarthritis is associated with a 24% higher risk of heart disease

  • Gout carries a 15% higher risk of stroke, heart attack, or death from heart disease

  • People with rheumatoid arthritis are between 50-70% more likely to develop heart disease

What’s the link between arthritis and heart health?

Although not all types of arthritis are classified as inflammatory diseases, they all involve inflammation in one way or another. And it’s arthritis’s chronic inflammation that has the biggest impact on heart health.

According to one Erin Michos, M.D., M.H.S. who serves as the Associate Director of Preventive Cardiology at John Hopkins’ Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease, “sustained low levels of inflammation irritate your blood vessels.” Over time, Michos reports that it can contribute to plaque growth, dislodge plaque in your arteries, and eventually trigger blood clots.

Inversely, when our hearts aren’t in the best shape, they may struggle to deliver oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout the body. This is especially important for people with arthritis, where nutrients and oxygen are desperately needed to support as much joint health as possible.

4 Tips to Protect Your Heart and Fight Inflammation

If this all sounds a bit hopeless, never fear — there are many ways you can target inflammation to support healthy joints and a strong heart!

1. Make time for more movement throughout the day.

We know this is a hard ask when you’re living with daily pain. While it can seem contradictory, moving your body can support heart health and arthritis in several ways. When you exercise, your heart pumps harder, which can help strengthen it. This in turn can improve circulation, which helps deliver more oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout your body. It can also help strengthen muscles that help protect your joints.

The CDC recommends aiming for 30 minutes of physical activity a day, five days a week. If this sounds daunting, do what you can. Any movement is better than nothing! Swimming, gentle walks, the elliptical, tai chi, or weight training are all great, low-impact options.

<< Explore 5 indoor workouts for the rainy day season >>

Of course, you know your body best. If you begin to feel pain, discontinue your workout and give your body a rest. 

2. Sprinkle anti-inflammatory foods into your diet.

The foods we eat play a surprisingly big role in our inflammation levels. Some of the best anti-inflammatory foods come in the form of antioxidants. Antioxidants may help protect our bodies against free radicals, which can cause cellular damage and in turn prompts inflammation. Antioxidants work to prevent cellular damage from occurring in the first place, effectively warding off inflammation before it can even take place. 

Great sources of antioxidants include: blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, apples, artichokes, dark leafy greens, red kidney beans, pinto beans. 

Antioxidants aren’t the only way to fight inflammation through diet though. Recent research has actually found that one of the main ingredients in olive oil, oleocanthal, may be as effective as commonly prescribed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen!

3. Cut back on inflammation-inducing foods.

While our diet can help us with inflammation, it can also hurt us if we’re not careful. Unfortunately, some of the most widely available ingredients and fast food options also happen to be the most damaging when it comes to inflammation.

For instance, research has found that processed sugars like those found in our favorite candies, sodas, and baked goods can prompt increased cytokine activity and heighten inflammation.

Saturated fats are another one to keep an eye out for. Foods high in saturated fats, like processed red meats and full-fat dairy products, can increase LDL cholesterol in addition to prompting cartilage damage. Other foods that are known to increase inflammation include trans fats, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol.

If you’re worried about missing out on all your favorite foods, the good news is you don’t have to cut them out completely. Moderation is the key here. Try lowering your intake of these foods a little bit at a time to make it easier.

<< Learn more on the Do’s and Don’ts of Diet for Arthritis >>

4. Prioritize self-care and stress relief.

No one likes feeling stressed. But did you know that long-term stress can directly affect your mental and physical health? In short bursts, stress doesn’t negatively affect us and can even have a strengthening effect. In the long-run though, unchecked stress can lead to widespread exhaustion, worsen mental health conditions, contribute to heart disease, and increase inflammation which worsens arthritis.

There are many ways you can begin managing stress. For moments of acute stress or anxiety, breathing exercises, getting outside, or working out can be great ways to soothe the nervous system and return you to a place of relaxation and calm. 

Other options that many find relaxing include aromatherapy, journaling, water coloring or creating art, reading, listening to soothing music, and enjoying some time out in nature.

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