If you are a woman who started menopause before you turned 46, then the authors of a new study have some good news to share. A Swedish research team found that women who have early menopause are much less likely to develop severe rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that most often strikes women.
Menopause is a time of change
The average age of the start of natural menopause is 51, and women are defined as having reached menopause when they have not had a menstrual period for 12 consecutive months and there are no other reasons for this change in their cycle. Along with the hormonal changes characteristic of menopause, women frequently experience a variety of symptoms ranging from hot flashes to headache, mood swings, breast tenderness, and fatigue.
Now according to a new study, women who go through early menopause may have a benefit: a more than 50% lower risk they will experience severe rheumatoid arthritis. At the recent European League Against Rheumatism's annual meeting, investigators announced that only 16% of women in their study having early menopause developed severe arthritis compared with 35% who had menopause starting at 46 years or later.
What the study showed
The study group consisted of 127 women who had been part of the Malmo Diet and Cancer Study, who had developed rheumatoid arthritis, and for whom menopausal status was known. However, complete information on arthritis severity was known for only 85 women.
Here are the study specifics:
- 25 of the 127 women reported early menopause (by age 45) and the remaining 102 had normal or late menopause
- Average age at diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis was 63.4 years
- Of the 19 women with early menopause, rheumatoid arthritis was severe in 16% and mild to moderate in 84%
- Of the 66 women with normal to late menopause, rheumatoid arthritis was severe in 35% and mild to moderate in 66%
- The researchers took into account the previous use of oral contraceptives, history of breastfeeding (both of which have an impact on hormones), smoking, and educational level, and none were associated with the severity of arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis in women
Rheumatoid arthritis affects about 2.1 million people in the United States, and it is two to three times more common in women than in men. In fact, a Mayo Clinic study in Arthritis and Rheumatism in 2010 reported that after declining for 40 years, the prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis in women has increased and declined in men.
The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known, but experts believe it is a combination of genetic, environmental (e.g., vitamin D deficiency, smoking), and hormonal factors.
Early menopause has previously been named as a risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis. According to Mitra Pikwer, MD, of Lund University in Lund, Sweden, who presented the study at the meeting, their findings are in line with earlier study results linking changes in hormone levels with the severity of rheumatoid arthritis.
While a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis is not one anyone wants to hear, the findings of this new study may offer something positive. They may be good news for women with early menopause who have rheumatoid arthritis.
Myasoedova E et al. In the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis rising? results from Olmsted County, Minnesota 1955-2007. Arthritis Rheum 2010 Jun; 62(6): 1576-82
Pikwer M et al. Early menopause is an independent predictor of rheumatoid arthritis. Ann Rheum Dis 2012 Mar; 71(3): 378-81
Pikwer M et al. Early menopause predicts a mild type of rheumatoid arthritis. EULAR 2012; abstract FR10087
Sammatano LR. Menopause in patients with autoimmune diseases. Autoimmun Rev 2012 May; 11(6-7): A430-36