Rheumatoid Arthritis Risks and Women: A HealthCentral Explainer

ATsai Editor
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is more common in women than men (2.5-to-1), and though it can occur at any age, it usually develops between ages 25 to 50. Over the past few years, more research has focused on the risk factors for RA, particularly risk factors that affect women. Here are some of the more notable studies.


    Can sunshine reduce the risk of RA in women?


    Exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB) rays may reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis in women, according to a recent study published in the Annals of Rheumatic Disease. The positive results were mostly seen in older women, which researchers say could be because younger women are more apt to protect themselves from the sun with sunscreen.

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    Research was done in two phases. The first phase of the U.S.  Nurses’ Health Study followed the health of 120,000 nurses from 1976 to 2008, with the starting age between 30 and 55. The second phase followed another 115,000 nurses from 1989 until 2009, with the starting age between 25 and 42.


    Researchers then measured the rates of UVB exposure with the UVB-flux, which calculates UVB radiation, cloud cover, latitude and altitude. During the course of the study, 1,314 women developed RA, and the nurses with the highest rates of UVB exposure were 21 percent less likely to develop RA than those with the lowest rates of exposure.


                [SLIDESHOW: 8 Facts About Vitamin D and Rheumatoid Arthritis]


    Can drinking alcohol reduce the risk?


    In a study published in July 2012, researchers found that women who drank more than three glasses of alcohol per week were 52 percent less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than women who never drank alcohol.


    Researchers took assessments of 34,141 Swedish women who were born between 1914 and 1948. They surveyed the participants in 1987 and again in 1997, and defined one standard glass of alcohol as approximately 500 ml of beer, 150 ml of wine or 50 ml of liquor. Researchers say their findings are probably due to alcohol’s ability to reduce the body’s immune response.

    It’s important to note that for people who have already been diagnosed with RA, taking certain medications, such as methotrexate and Arava, makes it important to limit alcohol consumption to very occasionally. Make sure you talk to your doctor about how your medications may affect your ability to drink alcohol.


    Can breastfeeding cut risk too?


    Breastfeeding your child for a longer period of time may also decrease your risk of developing RA, according to a 2008 study. Researchers compared 136 women with RA to 544 women of the same age without RA. They found that those who had breastfed for 13 months or more were 50 percent less likely to develop RA than those who had never breastfed. Those mothers who had breastfed for one to 12 months had a 25 percent less risk of developing RA.


    Researchers also found that simply having children, but not breastfeeding had no protective effects, nor did taking oral contraceptives, which contain the same hormones that are heightened during pregnancy.


                [SLIDESHOW: 5 Steps to Dealing with an RA Diagnosis]


    Does smoking increase the risk for RA?


    Smoking accounts for more than a third of the more severe, and the more common, form of rheumatoid arthritis, according to a 2010 study. In addition, in people who are genetically predisposed to developing RA, smoking accounts for more than half of the cases.


    Researchers looked at more than 1,200 people with RA and 871 people with the same age and sex who did not have the disease. They were quizzed about their smoking habits and put into three categories based on how long they had smoked. Blood samples were used to assess the volunteer’s genetic predisposition to RA, as well as to gauge the severity of their disease.

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    They found that more than 60 percent had the most severe form of the disease, which was judged by testing positive for a specific antibody. Those who had smoked the most, 20 cigarettes a day for 20 years, were more than 2.5 times more likely to test positive for the antibody.


    The risk fell for people who had quit smoking, based on how long they had been smoke-free. However, those who had been heavy smokers still had a relatively high risk.  For those patients who were genetically susceptible to RA, and who tested positive for the antibody, smoking accounted for 55 percent of cases.


    Can being a young woman with RA increase risk for broken bones?


    Women with RA who are under 50 years old are at an increased risk of breaking bones than women without RA, according to a study published in November 2011. Though men are also at an increased risk of fractures, this was seen only at an older age.


    Researchers studied two groups of 1,155 volunteers. One set had RA, and the other did not. A person from the first group was paired with a person from the other, and the medical records of the pair were referenced over time for new fractures not related to cancer or severe trauma. Researchers found that all people diagnosed with RA were at greater risk for fractures, but that women under 50 with RA were more likely to have a new fracture before turning 50 than their non-RA counterparts. Men with RA were also more vulnerable to fractures, but the risk only increased with age.



    n.p. Arthritis in Women. The Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.arthritis.org/conditions-treatments/disease-center/women/


    n.p. (2013, February 5). "Sunshine Reduces Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/255834.php


    BMJ-British Medical Journal (2012, July 10). Moderate drinking may reduce risk of rheumatoid arthritis. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120710185434.htm


    BMJ-British Medical Journal (2008, May 13). Women Who Breastfeed For More Than A Year Halve Their Risk Of Rheumatoid Arthritis. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080512191129.htm


    BMJ-British Medical Journal (2010, December 15). Smoking behind more than a third of severe rheumatoid arthritis cases. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101213201859.htm


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    Mayo Clinic (2011, November 7). Young women with rheumatoid arthritis at more risk for broken bones, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111106151153.htm


Published On: February 11, 2013