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Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most common autoimmune disease. Approximately 1.3 million Americans are affected. By definition, autoimmune diseases attack healthy cells which causes inflammation in certain parts of the body. RA usually attacks several joints in the body, including the knees, wrists, and hands. The inflammation caused by RA results in joint tissue damage. The damaged joints can cause chronic pain, balance issues, and joint deformity.

Other symptoms of RA include a loss of appetite, lower energy levels, and lumps or nodules near the affected joints.

While the specific cause of RA is not known, there are certain risk factors that have been identified. The following risk factors have been extensively studied by medical researchers.


As with many diseases, heredity plays a part in who is more likely to have RA. There are specific genes that have been identified that increases one’s risk of RA. These genes are known as human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class II genotypes. Not only does having these genes increase a person’s risk of having RA, they could also contribute to making RA symptoms worse. Genetics coupled with other risk factors, such as smoking and obesity, can further increase a person’s risk of having RA.


Obesity is tied to several chronic health conditions, and RA is no different. Researchers have identified certain inflammatory chemicals found in fat that may have a negative impact on RA. One such group of chemicals is called cytokines. Some cytokines are released by fat cells. There is still more research needed to determine the specific cytokines that fat cells may release and their effects, but one group has been identified.

Researchers have found that adipokines, a group of cytokines, promotes inflammation. As a result, RA symptoms can worsen as inflammation can cause chronic pain and other RA symptoms.


Research has found that smoking is not only linked to a person’s risk of developing RA, but smoking exacerbates RA symptoms. For people who have smoked for more than twenty years, the link between RA and smoking is more profound. Even early life exposure to smoking can increase the risk of developing RA when older.

While researchers have not fully defined how smoking increases RA risks and worsens symptoms, it has been established that smoking can impact the effects of certain drugs used to treat RA.

Age and Gender

RA’s onset has a wide age range. Generally, the effects of RA occur between the ages of 30 – 60. However, RA can occur at any age. Women have a much higher chance of developing RA; three times more likely than men. In addition, women are at a higher risk of developing RA at a younger age than men. Also, women who have never given birth, have a higher risk of developing RA. While more research is needed, there is some evidence that shows higher levels of estrogen and lower testosterone levels may be linked to developing RA.

There are many unknowns on the specific causes of RA, and there is no cur. The joint damage caused by RA is usually not reversible; however, there are certain things people can do to help reduce the chance of developing RA. They are tied directly to the risk factors.

To help possibly reduce the risk of developing RA, certain lifestyle changes should be implemented. These lifestyle changes can also help even after being diagnosed with RA, as they can help relieve symptoms.

Stop smoking

If you are a smoker, this is one of the first lifestyle changes to make. While research has not specifically shown why smoking causes the development of RA, it does show that smokers are more likely to develop RA.

Maintain a healthy weight

As noted above, obesity is a risk factor in developing RA. Getting to a healthy weight and maintaining it can reduce the risk of RA. A healthy weight means that there is less of a chance of inflammatory chemicals being released from fat cells.

Early intervention

It’s important to get immediate medical attention when you have signs of RA. Early intervention can make a big difference in the progression of RA and help relieve symptoms.

Diet & Exercise

Maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise play a pivotal role in reducing the risk of RA and managing RA. There are certain foods that promote inflammation such as processed meats, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. While other foods such as salmon, tuna, fruits and veggies can help control inflammation. Regular exercise helps keeps joints stronger, which helps with inflammation and pain.

RA is a prevalent disease whose exact origins are not clear; however, there are things that can be done to reduce the risk and manage the symptoms of RA. Even if there is a genetic predisposition to developing RA, symptoms can be managed with lifestyle changes. Also, early intervention and treatment can help manage the disease.

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The content on this page is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Patients should not use the information presented on this page for diagnosing a health-related issue or disease. Before taking any medication or supplements, patients should always consult a physician or qualified healthcare professional for medical advice or information about whether a drug is safe, appropriate or effective.