But, as indicated in a Johns Hopkins University study published online in Arthritis & Rheumatism, inflammation doesn’t act alone. Researchers found that RA patients had to have high levels of inflammation plus other heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, before inflammation increased the risk of atherosclerosis.

“The implication is that, in order to reduce cardiovascular risk, you have to reduce not just inflammation, but also the conventional risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes, high lipids [body fats] and smoking,” says Dr. Giles, the lead study author, who was at Johns Hopkins at the time.

You do that, he says, by making sure that your rheumatologist works with you to get inflammatory arthritis under control so that you have the lowest amount of systemic inflammation possible.

Also key: Don’t ignore risk factors for heart disease while trying to manage your arthritis. “Having a strong relationship between your rheumatologist and primary doctor can play a big role,” Dr. Giles says. “Your primary doctor can keep [your rheumatologist] aware of risk factors like cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Then you can all work toward the same goal.”

Lifestyle factors. According to the American Heart Association, there are six independent risk factors for heart disease that you can modify or control: smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, inactivity, obesity and diabetes.

These also correlate with arthritis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 52 percent of people with diabetes have arthritis, and 53 percent with arthritis have high blood pressure. Sixty-six percent of people with arthritis are overweight. And about 20 percent of people with arthritis smoke. Those risks appear to culminate in another formidable figure: According to a National Health Interview Survey, one in four adults with any form of arthritis also has heart disease.

Here’s how these lifestyle factors affect your heart health.

Smoking raises blood pressure and makes it tougher to exercise. It also lowers HDL, or good cholesterol, and speeds up plaque build-up in arteries. According to a study presented at the Endocrine Society’s 91st Annual Meeting, nicotine also promotes insulin resistance, or prediabetes, which raises the risk of heart disease.

“Smoking raises the risk of RA and of heart disease,” says Mayo Clinic researcher Cynthia Crowson. “The best thing you can do is to stop smoking.” In fact, according to the Cleveland Clinic, one year after quitting, heart disease risk drops to half that of a smoker. After five years, stroke risk drops to that of a non-smoker.

Diet and exercise can help you lose weight, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and manage diabetes – although that’s often easier said than done, especially for those with OA who are overweight or obese. In fact, an August 2011 study in Arthritis & Rheumatism found that 40 percent of men and 57 percent of women with knee OA were classified as “inactive” – that is, they did not get even one 10-minute session in a week of moderate to vigorous activity.