April 30 (UPI) -- People with rheumatoid arthritis who are severely obese or were losing weight tend to see more rapid progress of the condition, according to a new study.
Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found patients in either situation saw increased progression, and that when worsening disability is coupled with weight loss, especially in those who were already thin, it may be a sign of frailty.
The findings were published Sunday in Arthritis Care & Research.
"While patients and rheumatologists may be focused mostly on disease activity, we should also consider this common condition, which can contribute to problems that are usually attributed to the arthritis itself," Dr. Joshua Baker, a researcher at Penn, said in a press release. "In addition, unintentional weight loss should alert us that the patient may be becoming frail and is at risk for developing new disability."
Baker and colleagues analyzed data on 23,323 patients with rheumatoid arthritis whose information was collected in the National Data Bank of the Rheumatic Diseases, as well as 1,697 from the Veterans Affairs RA registry.
At enrollment, disability scores were higher among severely obese patients than for those who were overweight.
The researchers said the worsening disability was not associated with features of their arthritis, including inflammation in joints, noting the disability worsened more quickly in those that had lost wright.
"We believe that this is because when people get older and acquire illnesses, they tend to lose weight. Therefore, the important weight loss in this study is unintentional," Baker said.
"So, this study suggests that patients with rheumatoid arthritis and obesity would benefit from intentional weight loss through a comprehensive management strategy; however, when we see that someone is losing weight without trying, it's probably a poor prognostic sign, especially if they are already thin."
The researchers said health providers should recognize unintentional weight loss as a sign of trouble and refer patients for strength training, physical therapy and other programs.