Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects the joints but it also affects many other systems in the body. Half of all patients with RA become disabled. This happens in the first 10 years and adds to the risk of an earlier death.
The biggest risk factor is the presence of RA in the cervical spine (neck). Joint changes and collapse of the bones can cause a condition called cervical myelopathy.
Pressure on the spinal cord from cervical myelopathy can cause severe problems. Studies from autopies show sudden death occurs in as many as 10 percent of patients with RA affecting the cervical spine.