Long-Term Steroids in RA Linked to Increased Cardiovascular Risk

Tara Haelle

November 18, 2021

Each month of glucocorticoid use in middle-aged patients with rheumatoid arthritis increases their odds of a major adverse cardiac event by 14%, independent of their baseline cardiovascular risk, according to a Veterans Administration study presented at the virtual annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology. A similar study of Medicare and insurance claims data also presented at the meeting similarly found a dose-dependent increase in cardiovascular risk with long-term glucocorticoid use among patients with RA.

Up to half of patients with RA use long-term glucocorticoids, Beth Wallace, MD, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a staff rheumatologist at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare Center, told attendees in her presentation.

"Despite previous work suggesting they increase major [adverse] cardiovascular events, or MACE, in a dose-dependent way, prior work suggests long-term glucocorticoid use is common among RA patients with traditional basic risk factors like hyperlipidemia, diabetes, hypertension, and smoking," Wallace said. "But we know little about the incremental effects of ongoing glucocorticoid use on MACE risk in RA, particularly as traditional predisposing comorbidities might confound its assessment."

Christie Bartels, MD, associate professor and division head of rheumatology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said in an interview that these findings indicate a need to consider the risks of long-term glucocorticoid use for RA.

"The clinical implications of these studies include informed consent when using steroids in patients and when advocating for steroid-sparing therapy," said Bartels, who was not involved in either study. "We have never had more options for steroid-sparing medications in rheumatoid arthritis than we have right now, making it a critical time to reduce glucocorticoid use whenever possible. For short-term function and pain relief, or in some cases with many contraindications, there is still a role for glucocorticoid use, but these data show that no amount of longer-term glucocorticoid use is without risk."

VA Study Details

The retrospective cohort study relied on VA administrative data for 26,239 patients with RA who had at least one rheumatology visit during 2013-2017. Only adults aged 40-90 were included (85% men), and none had other rheumatologic conditions, a previous MACE, or congestive heart failure in the preceding 5 years.

The researchers used pharmacy dispensing data to determine exposure to glucocorticoids, based on the number of days' supply per 6 months and claims data to identify the primary outcome of MACE, defined as acute myocardial infarction, stroke, transient ischemic attack, cardiac arrest, or coronary revascularization, in the following 6 months. After a first MACE, a patient was removed from subsequent analysis so that only a participant's initial event was considered.

The researchers adjusted their analysis for demographics, health care utilization, long-term glucocorticoid use (over 90 days), use of methotrexate or biologics, and baseline cardiac risk based on the Veterans Affairs Risk Score for Cardiovascular Disease (VARS-CVD). The VARS-CVD uses age, sex, race, tobacco use, systolic blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes diagnosis, and use of antihypertensives to estimate the risk of a MACE in the next 5 years. A 5-year risk of less than 3% was considered low, 3%-9% medium, and above 9% high.

The population's median 5-year MACE risk based on VARS-CVD was 5.7%, with nearly a quarter of participants (23%) having a high risk. During the first year of follow-up, 23% of patients overall, including 24% of those with high risk, received at least 90 days of glucocorticoids. An incident MACE occurred in 3.2% of overall patients and in 4.9% of high-risk patients. Median time until an incident MACE was 25 months.

After adjusting for confounders, the researchers calculated that each additional 30 days of glucocorticoid use per 6-month period was linked to a 14% increase in odds of a MACE in the subsequent 6-month period (odds ratio, 1.14). This finding remained independent of baseline cardiovascular risk, previous long-term exposure to glucocorticoids, baseline office visits, methotrexate or biologic use, and baseline Elixhauser Cormobidity Index (except rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, and congestive heart failure).

Wallace noted that the observational study could still include residual confounding because of factors such as rheumatic disease activity, glucocorticoid dose, and care outside the VA. They also did not distinguish between existing and incident RA and were missing some VARS-CVD data, and they did not adjust for hydroxychloroquine use, which can reduce cardiovascular risk.

Details of Medicare and Private Insurance Claims Study

In the second study, Brian Coburn, MD, a fourth-year internal medicine resident at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, presented findings on long-term glucocorticoid use and cardiovascular outcomes in patients with RA based on 2006-2015 claims data from Medicare and the Optum Clinformatics Data Mart. That study similarly found a dose-dependent increase in cardiovascular risk with increasing dosage of long-term glucocorticoids.

All the patients in the two databases had an RA diagnosis and remained on disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) for at least 180 days without adding a new DMARD or stopping therapy for more than 90 days. Patients were not included if they had a history of myocardial infarction, stroke, coronary artery bypass grafting, or percutaneous coronary intervention.

Using the 180 days before and after starting DMARDs as baseline, the researchers assessed average dose of glucocorticoids during the last 90 days of the baseline period. Participants included 135,583 patients with Medicare, contributing 158,839 years at risk, and 39,272 patients in the Optum database, contributing 36,876 years at risk. The researchers then assessed composite cardiovascular events as a combination of strokes and myocardial infarctions.

A total of 2,067 cardiovascular events occurred among the Medicare patients, for a incidence of 1.3 events per 100 people per year, and 313 cardiovascular events occurred among Optum patients, for an incidence of 0.8 events per 100 people per year.

Over 1 year, a predicted 1.1% of Medicare patients not taking glucocorticoids would experience a stroke or heart attack, compared with 1.4% of those taking up to 5 mg/day of glucocorticoids, 1.7% of those taking 5-10 mg/day glucocorticoids, and 1.9% of those taking more than 10 mg/day glucocorticoids. The number needed to harm was 400 people for up to 5 mg/day, 192 people for 5-10 mg/day, and 137 people for more than 10 mg/day.

Among Optum patients, 0.7% not taking glucocorticoids would experience a stroke or heart attack over 1 year, compared with 0.9% of those taking up to 5 mg/day and 0.8% of those taking either 5-10 mg/day or more than 10 mg/day. The number needed to harm was 714 people for up to 5 mg/day of glucocorticoids, 5,000 people for 5-10 mg/day, and 1,667 for over 10 mg/day.

Bartels noted that this study "reported unadjusted rates, without controlling for traditional CVD risk factors, for instance, so it will be interesting to see that report after full analysis and peer review as well." She added that the rates in the VA study may even be higher if there were uncounted cardiovascular events or deaths outside the VA.

"The key take away is that glucocorticoids have dose-related cardiovascular risk shown in both duration and dose of use now in these three large U.S. cohorts," Bartels said. "Providers need to counsel patients in judicious use of glucocorticoids, favoring the role of biologic and nonbiologic DMARDs while balancing unique needs and quality-of-life considerations in our patients."

The VA retrospective cohort study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research. Wallace and seven other authors reported no disclosures. Several coauthors reported financial ties to multiple pharmaceutical companies. The Medicare/Optum retrospective cohort study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, and the Rheumatology Research Foundation. Coburn and five coauthors had no disclosures, while several others reported financial ties to a variety of pharmaceutical companies. Bartels has received institutional grant support from Pfizer for tobacco cessation research.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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