Cardiovascular event rates are markedly increased in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and RA atherogenesis remains poorly understood. The relative contributions of traditional and nontraditional risk factors to cardiovascular disease in RA await elucidation. The present study comprises three components. First, we compared biomarkers of endothelial dysfunction (vascular cell adhesion molecule [VCAM]-1, intercellular adhesion molecule [ICAM]-1 and endothelial leucocyte adhesion molecule [ELAM]-1) in 74 RA patients and 80 healthy control individuals before and after controlling for traditional and nontraditional cardiovascular risk factors, including high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), IL-1, IL-6 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. Second, we investigated the potential role of an extensive range of patient characteristics in endothelial dysfunction in the 74 RA patients. Finally, we assessed associations between biomarkers of endothelial dysfunction and ultrasonographically determined common carotid artery intima-media thickness and plaque in RA. The three biomarkers of endothelial dysfunction, as well as hs-CRP, IL-1, IL-6 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha, were higher in patients than in control individuals (P < 0.0001). Patients were also older, exercised less and had a greater waist circumference, blood pressure and triglyceride levels (P <or= 0.04). Five patients had diabetes. Differences in endothelial function were no longer significant between patients and controls (P = 0.08) only after both traditional and nontraditional cardiovascular risk factors were controlled for. In the 74 RA patients, IL-6 predicted levels of all three biomarkers (P <or= 0.03), and rheumatoid factor titres and low glomerular filtration rate (GFR) both predicted levels of VCAM-1 and ICAM-1, independent of traditional cardiovascular risk factors (P <or= 0.02). VCAM-1 was associated with common carotid artery intima-media thickness (P = 0.02) and plaque (P = 0.04) in RA. Patients had impaired endothelial function, less favourable traditional cardiovascular risk factor profiles, and higher circulating concentrations of hs-CRP and cytokines compared with healthy control individuals. Both traditional and nontraditional cardiovascular risk factors contributed to the differences in endothelial function between RA patients and healthy control individuals. IL-6, rheumatoid factor titres and low GFR were independently predictive of endothelial dysfunction in RA. Disease-modifying agents that effectively suppress both cytokine and rheumatoid factor production, and interventions aimed at preserving renal function may attenuate cardiovascular risk in RA.