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Rheumatoid Arthritis Risk Factors Every Woman Should Know, But May Not

rheumatoid arthritis risk factors

Rheumatoid arthritis is about two and a half times more common among women than men, and while both sexes do share some risk factors, there are others that are exclusive to women. New research reveals the rheumatoid arthritis risk factors every woman should know. Do you know what they are and what you can do about them?

What are the risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis?

An estimated 1.5 million adults in the United States have rheumatoid arthritis, with women far outnumbering men. This debilitating autoimmune disease typically strikes women between the ages of 25 and 50, although there is a juvenile form of the disease as well.

Rheumatoid arthritis is classified as an inflammatory polyarthritis because it typically affects multiple joints. In addition, rheumatoid arthritis is also systemic, which means it can have an impact on the entire body. The chronic inflammation associated with the disease not only affects the linings of the joints but the internal organs as well, resulting in pain, deterioration, and limited movement.

An investigative team at the Arthritis Research UK Epidemiology Center has reported on the various lifestyle factors and pre-existing conditions that place individuals at an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. To arrive at their findings, they observed 25,639 men and women (ages 40 to 79) and compared data from the 184 who developed rheumatoid arthritis with those who did not.

Women (and the men who love them) should take notice of these risk factors and when possible, take steps to alleviate or eliminate them.

  • Smoking. Compared with women who don’t smoke, current smokers have a 50 percent increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, according to the authors’ findings. Smoking risk appears to be related to the amount of smoking one does and is associated with carrying the shared epitope (a genetic susceptibility). Smoking can increase a person’s severity of rheumatoid arthritis and reduce the effectiveness of treatment as well. Women who smoke can significantly reduce their risk of rheumatoid arthritis if they quit smoking.
  • Having diabetes. The presence of diabetes increases a woman’s risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. However, you can take steps to avoid and manage diabetes through sensible diet, regular exercise, and weight control.
  • Obesity. A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater is associated with an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. Carrying excess weight also makes it more difficult to cope with rheumatoid arthritis, so achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is recommended.
  • Having children: Women who give birth to more than two children have twice the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis than do women who do not have children.
  • Breastfeeding: Women who breastfeed for only a short time are more likely to develop the disease. Previous research (2008) published in the Annals for the Rheumatic Diseases showed that women who breastfeed for a long time (longer than six months) are less likely to get rheumatoid arthritis.

On the plus side, the authors reported on two factors that may lower a woman’s risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Alcohol consumption. Drinking a small amount of alcohol is associated with a lower chance of developing the disease. A recent study appearing in BMJ reported that women who drink more than 4 servings of alcohol (beer, wine, liquor) per week for 10 years or longer have a 52 percent lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis than women who don’t drink. This finding is not an invitation for women who don’t drink to start, however.
  • Social class. The authors also found that women in a higher social class (i.e., professionals vs manual laborers) are less likely to develop the disease.

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According to the study’s lead researcher, Ian Bruce, senior investigator and professor of rheumatology at The University of Manchester, “The factors we studied give us vital clues to the early events in the process that ends in someone developing RA. They are also simple to ask about and can be used as part of a prevention program.”

Two associated risk factors not discussed in the study nor in the list above are family history and genetics. As with most diseases, a family history increases a person’s chance of developing the condition themselves.

Individuals who have a certain type of genes (human leukocyte antigen, HLA) also have an increased chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis compared with people who don’t have the HLA genes. However, the presence of HLA genes is no guarantee someone will develop the disease.

Do you have risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis? If you do, and you are experiencing stiffness (especially in the morning), pain, swelling, and/or redness in one or more joints, it’s time to see your healthcare provider and to take action.

Arthritis Foundation
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
DiGiuseppe D et al. Long term alcohol intake and risk of rheumatoid arthritis in women: a population based cohort study. BMJ 2012 Jul 10; 345:34230
Lahiri M et al. Using lifestyle factors to identify individuals at higher risk of inflammatory polyarthritis. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases 2013 Mar 18. Doi:10.1136/annrheumdis-2012-202481
Pikwer M et al. Breast feeding, but not use of oral contraceptives, is associated with a reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases 2008. Doi:10.1136/ard.2007.084707

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