Mortality From Rheumatoid Arthritis Is Real

There have been many celebrity deaths over the last few weeks from cancer, including David Bowie and Alan Rickman.  But now there has been a celebrity death from RA: Glenn Frey, a founding member of the band The Eagles, died on January 18, 2016 from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis, and pneumonia.

Right now, that’s all we know about Glenn Frey’s death.  We don’t know how long he had been dealing with RA, or how severe it was.  All we know is that it played a direct role in his death.

However, Glenn Frey’s manager, Irving Azoff, is claiming that medications that Frey took to treat his RA are what ultimately led to his death.  This is currently being reported only by Hollywood Life and The Wrap, and not by other mainstream media that has been reporting on Frey’s death.  Unfortunately, this kind of hypothesizing by someone who is not knowledgeable about this disease has the potential to cause hysteria about RA medications.

Clearly there is a fundamental misunderstanding of this disease, as Irving Azoff has been quoted as detailing the extent of Glenn Frey’s disease as, ‘One day his knees would hurt, his hands hurt.’  But that does not begin to describe the extent to which this disease impacts those who have it.

Those of us who take medication to treat our RA know that these drugs come with many risks.  However, in most cases, the benefits of these medications outweigh the risks.

While The Eagles are a bit before my time, I understand that this death is a huge loss to the music world, for my local community as Glenn Frey grew up in a suburb of Detroit, and I also understand it as a watershed moment for our community, an opportunity to shed light on RA.

One myth about this disease, held by those both inside and outside of the community, is that you can’t die from RA, but obviously, you can, as Glenn Frey did.

It has been suggested that RA takes years off of peoples’ lives.  But it is unclear how much.  What is agreed upon is that people with RA have greater risks of premature mortality than the general population.  This pretty much is common sense, since it’s no surprise that those who are sick die earlier than those who are not.

Because RA comes with an increased risk of heart disease, this can be a cause of premature mortality.  RA also comes with co-morbidities such as infections and malignancies that come from having a weakened immune system, sometimes as a result of the disease, and sometimes as a result of the medications we take, or both.  This can also have an impact on premature mortality.  And because RA can impact all of the organ systems of the body, high blood pressure and lung issues can also cause premature mortality.

It’s important to understand that disease progression varies by person, and is based on disease severity, time to diagnosis, and other issues.  This makes it a bit hard to provide definitive information about cause of death, premature mortality, and how this relates to RA.

While new medications, like biologics, to treat RA, have been introduced in the last several decades, mortality rates from RA have not changed, despite the fact that mortality rates have decreased for the general public.

I hope that this death will resonate with both our community and the general public.  But I worry that because it wasn’t a death by cancer, it won’t get the press and recognition that it deserves.  We, as a community, have to take the time to educate ourselves and others about this disease.  We need to emphasize that while cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, only surpassed by heart disease, RA kills, too.

As I was writing this post, I had the Today Show on, which happened to be talking about Glenn Frey, and Willie Geist didn’t even know how to pronounce “rheumatoid arthritis.”

Glenn Frey was just 67 years old.

#RAmortalityisreal

“[…] We may lose and we may win
Though we will never be here again
So open up, I’m climbin’ in
So take it easy […]”

– “Take It Easy”, The Eagles

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