Sixty-four survivors from a prospective study of early rheumatoid disease were assessed again at a mean of 15.2 years from presentation and their status compared with 29 patients who had died. Eleven of the dead and only two of the survivors had been treated with steroids. There was a small increase in mortality due to the disease itself but only one death was directly caused by it.

As might be expected, those who died were older. In the first year of disease, they had lower haemoglobin levels, a lower body mass, higher sedimentation rates and higher levels of blood urea. One-fifth at entry to the study and two-fifths by the time of death, had poor functional capacity.

Of 64 survivors, six had poor functional capacity at entry and nine after 15 years. Discriminant analysis was performed to identify the most powerful combination of early features predicting a poor functional outcome. A combmation including early erosive change, seropositivity, poor grip strength and cervical subluxation predicted the outcome correctly in 73% of survivors.

Almost 60% of survivors remained with or improved to normal function at 15 years suggesting that morbidity is not as bad as has been suggested in the past.