Glenn Frey Eagles Rheumatoid Arthritis

Did Rheumatoid Arthritis (or Its Treatment) Really Kill the Eagles’ Glenn Frey?

Glenn Frey Rheumatoid Arthritis
Glenn Frey at the 2013 Walk to Cure Arthritis in Los Angeles, CA.

When the sad news about the passing of Glenn Frey hit the Internet Monday night, there were varying reports about the precise cause of the Eagles guitarist and singer’s death.

A post on the band’s website stated Frey had “succumbed to complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia.” And in an interview with the entertainment and media news website TheWrap, Eagles manager Irving Azoff said Frey’s death could be blamed in part on the RA medications he was taking. (There have been no public reports about which medications Frey was taking.)

“The colitis and pneumonia were side effects from all the meds,” Azoff told TheWrap. “He died from complications of [ulcerative] colitis after being treated with drugs for his rheumatoid arthritis, which he had for over 15 years.”

While it is impossible to know, without consulting Frey’s doctors, what was the actual cause of his death – or which disease came first – Frey reportedly had had RA for 15 years and his intestinal problems date back at least 30 years to 1986, when, The Washington Post reports, he missed a benefit concert in California because of “an intestinal disorder.” Eight years later, the Eagles’ “Hell Freezes Over” reunion tour was interrupted by Frey’s “bout with diverticulitis.” In October 1994, People magazine reported that Frey was recuperating at his home in Los Angeles following surgery earlier that month for diverticulitis, “an inflammation of the colon.”

Arthritis experts not involved in Frey’s care say it is unlikely that RA directly caused his death, or that the medications he took for RA somehow caused ulcerative colitis, a chronic autoimmune disease that causes ulcers and inflammation in the inner lining of the colon and rectum. However, some forms of inflammatory arthritis are accompanied by bowel disease, and the treatments for RA and ulcerative colitis overlap, says David Pisetsky, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and immunology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. A number of drugs, including TNF inhibitors, sulfasalazine, azathioprine, methotrexate and corticosteroids, are used in the treatment of both RA and ulcerative colitis. These drugs work largely by suppressing the immune response that causes damage in the two diseases.

While current RA treatments greatly improve the quality of life, reduce permanent joint damage and perhaps extend the life expectancy for people with RA, they are not trivial drugs, says Eric Matteson, MD, a rheumatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. They can have serious side effects. For example, by suppressing the immune response that causes tissue damage, they also increase susceptibility to infections, including pneumonia.

“People with RA already have a two-fold risk of infection,” says Dr. Matteson. Infection risk also increases with age (Frey was 67) and with hospitalization and surgery. Frey reportedly had a relapse of intestinal issues which forced the Eagles to cancel their Kennedy Center Honors appearance in December. “At the time, the band said he needed major surgery that would require a lengthy recovery,” TMZ reported. Dr. Matteson says any or all of these factors could have contributed to pneumonia.

It is no secret that many patients are very concerned over medication side effects, especially when hearing about Frey’s death. But rather than focusing on the harm the medicines might have caused, Dr. Matteson considers what Frey’s life with RA would have been like without the medicines. “Would he have had those 15 productive years? We have no way of knowing.”

Dr. Matteson says even if Frey’s death was not directly related to RA, his story sends a message of how serious RA can be. In addition to infection risk, people with RA also have increased risk of other health problems, most notably cardiovascular disease, lung problems and certain cancers. And while life expectancy for someone with RA has improved over the last 20 years, it’s still lower than that of a person in the general population.

Appropriate treatment and monitoring are crucial for people with RA, as is keeping up to date on immunizations and taking medications at the lowest doses necessary to control the disease, says Dr. Pisetsky. Weighing the risks and benefits should be part of the discussion between a doctor and patient before starting (or ending) any treatment.

Author: Mary Anne Dunkin for the Arthritis Foundation

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5 thoughts on “Did Rheumatoid Arthritis (or Its Treatment) Really Kill the Eagles’ Glenn Frey?

  1. Thank you for this clarifying this news release. I too wondered how he could have died from RA. And I do believe the drugs are needed for quality of life, no doubt. One outweighs the other. The more info we have, the better.


  2. I’ve been a member of our club 30 years so when i say treatment messes with digestion BELIEVE IT. I’ve had ulcers, irritable bowel among other problems too embarrassing to speak of. I pray this changes soon.

  3. I was saddened by Glenn Frey’s death, especially since I’ve been a fan since their early years. I’ve had RA for 30 years. I’ve also had ulcerative colitis, and diverticulitis. As well, in 2009 I was hospitalized with psepsis. The only thing that saved my life was the drug Xigris. I’m now 63 and still trying to control my RA. My Dr. just started me on liquid methotrexate via syringe since I had allergic reactions to the pills.
    All of these blog reports brought things into perspective for me. Hopefully, people will realize that just because a person “looks healthy” doesn’t mean they are.
    Fan of Glenn and The Eagles

  4. The symptoms that develop as a result of an aggressive rheumatoid arthritis disease course, are what put patients at a greater risk for a lower life expectancy. … In general, patients can expect that the rheumatoid arthritis life expectancy could be shortened by roughly 10 years to as many as 15 years.

    People confuse rheumatoid arthritis (caused by an immune system run amok) with osteoarthritis, which is a degenerative arthritis (a condition common with the aging process).

    Obviously, if the medications for rheumatoid arthritis are weakening an overactive and misguided immune system, people who take them will be more susceptible to illnesses like pneumonia, which can also be deadly.

    Rheumatoid arthritis is obviously a sucky disease.

  5. Full sympathy to those with RA. At 66 I only have osteoarthritis probably brought on by too much tennis and cross-country ski-ing!
    New knees – ouch! However, I am a healthy-living addict. No alcohol, cigarettes but lots of healthy food, excercise and several laughs a day. Looking around I so many people sabotaging their own lives from an early age also with prescription pills. I do not take any. I use food to help my body deal with my ailments. Only in a postoperative stage will I take painkillers. Antibiotics are in too. Prescription pills should be a last resort as in Bechterews. There is a high price to pay for quick-fixes, and a history of party drugs dosn´t help either. The message is “be your body´s best friend”.

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