What is rheumatoid arthritis? Rheumatoid arthritis is an ongoing, progressive disease that affects the joints of the body with episodes of painful inflammation. It is an autoimmune disease that can also cause inflammation and damage to blood vessels and organs. The onset of rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA, can occur at any age and affects women more than men. In general, the younger a person is when he or she develops rheumatoid arthritis, the more rapidly the disease progresses. The severity of rheumatoid arthritis varies greatly among individuals. In some cases, people with the disease become severely disabled. In addition, life expectancy may be shortened by about three to seven years, and those with the most severe forms of RA may die 10 to 15 years earlier than expected. Complications of rheumatoid arthritis can be serious and include the destruction of joints, disability, and in severe cases, life-threatening complications of organs and blood vessels. Seek prompt medical care if you have symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, such as inflammation, pain, stiffness, and swelling of joints. Early diagnosis and treatment can minimize discomfort and reduce your risk of serious complications.