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Rheumatoid Arthritis Risk Factors and Prevention

Early diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis can help prevent the development of severe symptoms.

Smoking tobacco increases the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Smoking tobacco increases the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Risk Factors and Prevention

Although there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and only limited understanding of its direct causes, knowledge of rheumatoid arthritis risk factors and prevention can help patients watch for warning signs of the potentially debilitating condition. RA causes inflammation in joints and can harm most tissues in and around joints, including bones, cartilage, muscles, ligaments and tendons. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent severe joint damage, which can start within one or two years of the onset of the disease. It is important for people at risk for acquiring RA to see a doctor as soon as potential symptoms appear.

Age and Gender Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis

According to the Mayo Clinic, rheumatoid arthritis most commonly affects people between the ages of 40 and 60, but can occur at any age. When a child has the disease, it is called juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA). An estimated 50,000 children have JSA. According to the American College of Rheumatology, rheumatoid arthritis affects more than 1.3 million adults in the United States, 75 percent of which are women.

Medical and Physical Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis

The risk for women who have been pregnant is slightly lower than those who have not. Women who have shorter fertility periods, an indication of lower level of reproductive hormones, may be at a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. Some recent studies have also found that women who breastfeed are at a lower risk of RA, which contradicts earlier studies.

Some studies have found that the use of oral contraceptives decreases a woman's risk of acquiring RA, but more recent studies have not confirmed this. Findings about any association between hormone replacement therapy and RA are mixed.

A history of blood transfusions may also increase susceptibility to the disease.

Genetic Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Genetics may play a role in causing rheumatoid arthritis. According to the American College of Rheumatology, 60 to 70 percent of rheumatoid arthritis patients of European ancestry have the HLA-DR4 gene, which is linked to RA. Only 30 percent of the general population has this gene. However, genes only play a partial role in the development of RA. While having a family member with RA may increase a person's chances of developing the disease, doctors do not believe the disease is directly inheritable. Gene factors may increase susceptibility to RA, but environmental factors probably play a stronger role in actually acquiring the disease.

Lifestyle Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis

People who smoke cigarettes are at a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, especially long-term smokers who have no family history of the disease. However, quitting smoking can reduce the risk of acquiring RA.

Some studies have indicated that drinking coffee could increase the risk of developing RA and that drinking tea decreases the risk, but a recent review of data indicates that neither beverage has any effect on susceptibility to the disease.

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