People with rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, are more than three times as likely to die within a year of showing symptoms of depression as people with RA who do not have such symptoms. The findings were presented today at the 2012 annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology, held in Washington, D.C.  

“These findings suggest that patients with RA should be alert to their feelings of sadness and depression and be willing to discuss them with their health care practitioner,” says study co-author Patricia Katz, PhD, professor of medicine and health policy at the University of California, San Francisco.

This is especially true for men, Katz notes. In the study, men with RA who reported having feelings of worthlessness and emptiness or, for example, disengaging from activities that were once enjoyed, were five times more likely to die within the next year than women with RA and no depressive symptoms.

“Men are less likely to be proactive about seeking help, so it is important for men with RA to be aware of their feelings and be willing to discuss them with their doctor,” Katz says.

Katz and colleagues reported on a group of 530 RA patients from clinics in Northern California, who were followed from 2002 or 2003 until 2009 or death. The mean age was 60, and 84 percent were women.

All patients participated in annual telephone interviews in which they responded to 15 questions from the Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS), which measures feelings of anxiety, fulfillment and/or hopelessness. If they answered yes to at least five of the questions, they were considered to have significant levels of depressive symptoms. Katz emphasized that this was not a formal diagnosis of depression, just a red flag that the patient had symptoms associated with depression.

Patients with a score of 5 or higher on the GDS were 3.5 times more likely to die in the following year than those with lower scores. Also, patients with a GDS score that worsened by 2 points or more from one year to the next were at least two times more likely to die within the following year than those whose score did not go up as much.