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Can Rheumatoid Arthritis Kill You?

The disease reportedly contributed to the recent death of The Eagles' Glenn Frey

Dr. Rebecca Manno, a Johns Hopkins rheumatologist, encountered several patients Wednesday who were alarmed about news reports that rheumatoid arthritis had contributed to the death of The Eagles’ star Glenn Frey. On top of that, Frey’s long-time agent reportedly attributed his death to the medications Frey had been taking for his rheumatoid arthritis.

“Am I going to die from a complication like he did?” Manno’s patients asked her. “Oh, my goodness, I’m not going to see my kids graduate from college.”

The Eagles had issued a statement Monday saying that Frey had “succumbed to complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia,” and in an interview published that day, agent Irving Azoff blamed Frey’s arthritis medications for his colitis and pneumonia.

Questions Remain

While only the physicians who treated Frey know why he died, Manno and other experts who weren’t involved in his care interviewed by Next Avenue say it’s unlikely that rheumatoid arthritis killed him or that he had both that disease and ulcerative colitis.

Medications to treat rheumatoid arthritis work by suppressing... the immune system, leaving patients at an increased risk of an infection such as pneumonia.

Even patients’ families sometimes use incorrect terms to describe their illness, Manno says. True, rheumatoid arthritis “certainly causes problems with the body outside of the joints,” she says. However, “the gastrointestinal tract is not a typical place where we see problems with rheumatoid arthritis.”

“His story doesn’t quite make sense,” says Dr. David Rubin, chief of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at the University of Chicago.

According to news reports, Frey suffered from digestive tract problems for decades and had part of his intestine removed in 1990. The Eagles bowed out of the Kennedy Center Honors in November because Frey was facing another intestinal operation.

The thing is, “multiple bowel resections are performed in Crohn’s disease,” the other type of inflammatory bowel disease, not ulcerative colitis, Rubin notes. Crohn’s can affect the entire digestive tract, while ulcerative colitis affects just the colon.

“When ulcerative colitis is bad, people have their colon removed in one surgery,” Rubin says. “Also, people just don’t die from ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s.”

Were Medications the Culprit?

Medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis work by suppressing, or calming down, the immune system, leaving patients at an increased risk of an infection such as pneumonia, which reportedly contributed to Frey’s death. “Infections are a complication with the medications that are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis,” Manno says.

However, Marcy O’Koon, director of consumer health for the Arthritis Foundation, notes the medications do not cause ulcerative colitis, as Frey’s manager reported. (O’Koon says Frey had been involved in Arthritis Foundation events related to rheumatoid arthritis.)

But pneumonia can be a killer even in people who are not immunocompromised, says Dr. Ellen Goldmuntz, a specialist in rheumatologic autoimmune diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Rheumatoid arthritis can be associated with other serious medical conditions, especially cardiovascular disease, Manno says, explaining that the connection “is probably something about the chronic inflammatory state.”

Glenn Frey is not the first celebrity whose death has concerned some of her patients, Manno says. Alarms went off in February 2014 when Ghostbusters star Harold Ramis died of complications from vasculitis, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the blood vessels.

“It does create fear,” she says. “I can’t say if [my patients] are going to have something similar.”


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