When rock music legend Glenn Frey died at age 67 due to complications from rheumatoid arthritis (RA), many people expressed shock. After all isn’t arthritis mainly a nuisance condition, causing stiff and painful joints? How can arthritis cause someone to die? As an autoimmune disorder, RA can affect the health and function of many body systems and individual organs. Here are a few ways rheumatoid arthritis can turn life-threatening. RA is different from osteoarthritis. When you hear the word “arthritis,” you may initially think of osteoarthritis. This common condition causes pain and stiffness in the fingers, knees and other joints. Because osteoarthritis is caused by wear-and-tear to the lining of your joints, many people develop osteoarthritis as they age. Doctors generally treat this type of arthritis with anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen. Severe osteoarthritis in a major joint like the knee might be treated with joint replacement surgery, but as a rule osteoarthritis is not considering a life-threatening condition. Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, does not result from wear-and-tear to the joints. As an autoimmune disorder, RA occurs when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own healthy tissue. RA is an incurable disease that can threaten a person’s life through heart and lung damage. Rheumatoid arthritis can cause life-threatening complications. At its core, RA is an inflammatory disease process. It is considered “systemic,” which means the inflammation affects all of your body’s systems in some way. The first symptoms of RA might be painful finger joints, but other effects of the disease can include: Anemia: low red blood cell count Atherosclerosis: hardening of the arteries Osteoporosis: thinning of the bone tissue Pericarditis: inflammation of the heart lining Rheumatoid lung: inflammation and scarring of the lungs Scleritis: inflammation and/or scarring of the whites of the eyes Skin nodules and rashes: bumps or change in skin texture or color Vasculitis: inflammation of small and medium-sized blood vessels throughout the body When RA causes serious complications, they can quickly turn life threatening. For example, scarring of the lung tissue can make it impossible for the body to take in enough oxygen or expel enough carbon dioxide to survive. And if a person develops multiple RA complications, the results can be dire. But there are ways to stay healthy with RA. Fortunately, not everyone who has rheumatoid arthritis will develop serious complications. Many people with RA live active, productive lives. While the condition is not yet curable, you can take many steps to stay as healthy as possible when you have RA: Apply heat and cold to relieve joint pain. Eat healthfully, including a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids like the kind you get from eating salmon. Relax through meditation, walking or another technique to reduce stress and improve your quality of life. Stay physically active to preserve joint function and keep your muscles strong. Stop smoking, as tobacco use seems to worsen RA symptoms. Work closely with an experienced rheumatologist to explore the best treatment options for you. As you can see, rheumatoid arthritis is a condition that goes well beyond the nuisance of swollen joints. This inflammatory autoimmune disease affects many body systems and can even turn life threatening when its complications affect the lungs or heart. But with careful management and healthy lifestyle choices, you can continue to live well even in the face of RA.