MONDAY, April 9 (HealthDay News) -- People with rheumatoid arthritis are at increased risk for gastrointestinal problems, such as ulcers and bleeding, and also for death related to gastrointestinal issues, a new study says.

The findings highlight the need to develop new ways to prevent and treat gastrointestinal complications in rheumatoid arthritis patients, according to the Mayo Clinic researchers.

They examined data collected from 813 rheumatoid arthritis patients and an equal number of patients without the disease between 1980 and 2008.

During that time, the incidence of upper gastrointestinal problems in rheumatoid arthritis patients declined but was still higher than in people without rheumatoid arthritis: 2.9 vs. 1.7 per 100-person years. Rheumatoid arthritis patients also had a higher rate of lower gastrointestinal problems than people without RA: 2.1 vs. 1.4 per 100-person years.

The researchers also found that 229 of the rheumatoid arthritis patients died and that gastrointestinal problems such as bleeds, perforations and obstructions were significantly associated with their deaths.

"Our findings emphasize that physicians and patients must be vigilant for these complications, which can occur without causing abdominal pain," study co-author Dr. Eric Matteson, chair of the rheumatology department at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said in a Mayo news release.

Quitting smoking and reducing use of corticosteroids may be important ways to cut the risk of gastrointestinal complications in rheumatoid arthritis patients, he added.

The study was published online last week in The Journal of Rheumatology.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about rheumatoid arthritis.