During the past decades, a more cautious approach with respect to prescribing medication and physical exercise progressed toward evidence-based guidelines regarding the management of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Currently, physical activity and other means to improve well-being and functioning are encouraged, and the disease is targeted earlier with more intensive and aggressive pharmacologic treatment. The current study examined whether psychological distress and physical disability in patients with RA reduced over the last 2 decades and whether this is explained by a reduction of disease activity.


From 1990–2011, consecutive patients with RA (n = 1,151, age range 17–86 years, 68% female, 62% rheumatoid factor positive) were monitored at diagnosis and after 3–5 years of treatment (followup). Depressed mood, anxiety, and physical disability were predicted in multiple linear regression analyses by year of assessment, disease activity, and patient demographics.


Over the decades, depressed mood (P = 0.01), anxiety (P = 0.001), and physical disability (P = 0.02) reduced at diagnosis and within-treatment improvement of anxiety (P = 0.04) and physical disability (P < 0.001) increased. Percentages of patients with depressed mood, anxiety, and physical disability at followup changed from 25%, 23%, and 53%, respectively, 2 decades ago to 14%, 12%, and 31%, respectively, currently. After taking account of reduction in disease activity, the decrease in physical disability remained significant (P < 0.001).


Over the last 2 decades, psychological distress and physical disability decreased. This favorable trend might partly be due to reduced disease activity. The results indicate that patients with RA have a better opportunity to live a valued life currently than 20 years ago.