Aging with Rheumatoid Arthritis

I was a toddler when I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. That was a long time ago! Age two plus 38 years with RA has definitely taken a toll on my body. While changes naturally come with aging, there are additional issues that I worry about now that I’m into my 40s.

What influenced the rapid progression of JRA?

Limited or ineffective treatment options

Two factors influenced the progression of my disease during my childhood. First, treatment options were limited. By this I mean there were just a few drugs. But I also mean that they were not very effective, or at least did not have the power that today’s medications (like biologics) possess for halting the disease. At least two of the drugs I took back then are no longer in common use because of their ineffectiveness.

Having an extremely aggressive form of RA

The second factor is just plain luck (or lack of it). I had an extremely aggressive case of RA. All of my joints have either contractions or extremely limited motion. I have not met someone else living with RA who has a similar level of damage. (And my hope is that I am a rare bird—I’d so rather no one else have to experience it. Much better that the drugs work and physical damage is less.)

Aging with rheumatoid arthritis

During my lifetime I have adapted to my physical limitations and disabilities. I enjoy using my handy tools and tooling around in my speedy motorized wheelchair. But I have been thinking about the future decades and considering what RA may bring to bear as I age.

Maintaining proper nutrition and appropriate exercise

As with anyone, staying as healthy as possible will make it easier to cope with any health challenges. I need to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and get proper rest (which may mean extra rest for me, as I am constantly battling RA fatigue). All of these lifestyle practices may need tweaks due to my RA, such as being extra careful about managing (or losing) weight to keep inflammation down as much as possible and reduce extra strain on my joints. And exercise has to be adjusted to account for what I can do with my joint limitations and pain—such as swimming, range of motion, light weight lifting, or assisted walking.

Monitoring heart health

One of the things that concerns me about aging is heart health. The research of RA patients correlates the illness with potential for heart health issues, likely due to inflammation in the body. So one of the things I do is get my doctor to check my heart every year and help me to monitor my heart health.

Staying on top of cancer screenings

Another issue can be cancer, connected either to the autoimmune issues of living with RA or the medications. (Or possibly a combination of the two.) Again, screening is important for getting regular checks.

Limitations due to the impact of RA

Perhaps my greatest concern is the slow, yet continuous, progression of my RA and the increasing limitations I experience. While ongoing damage did slow a lot as I entered adulthood, I still have witnessed a steady decline. I don’t have the strength or endurance I had 20 years ago. (Sure, similar changes happen with aging, but they are definitely more pronounced because I already have significant disabilities from my RA.)

Planning as much as possible

I can’t predict what my abilities may be in another 10 or 20 years, but it’s a fair guess that I will have lost ground and will either need more help or more assistive devices (or both). My intent is to plan ahead to have as much support as possible for the future. This means saving as much as I can, and thinking about how to make life as easy as possible (like living in a one-story home that accommodates my wheelchair).

Obviously, we can’t know what the future necessarily holds. But my goal is to age well, despite living with RA.

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