For the First Time, Study Shows That Behavior Can Lower Rheumatoid Arthritis Risk

Health Writer
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Give ya one guess which behavior? You got it: smoking.

Thanks to a study published in Arthritis Care and Research, we now know that changing behavior, in this case sustained smoking cessation, can reduce the risk of developing RA. “We found out that risk isn’t just about genes and bad luck, there is something people can do to reduce their risk or prevent RA,” according to Dr. Jeffrey Sparks, M.D., one of the study’s authors.

To develop their conclusions, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital used information from more than 230,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study. This study included registered nurses from across the U.S. who filled out health surveys every two years that looked specifically at smoking status, intensity, packs smoked per year, and years since smoking cessation.

It’s no newsflash that smoking causes all kinds of health ills, but what researchers found here is that increasing the number of packs puffed each year was associated with an increased risk for RA. In contrast, they found that increasing the time that the women had stopped smoking showed a decreased trend in risk for RA. “While smoking cessation may not decrease RA risk to the level of a never-smoker, our findings provide evidence that a behavior change of smoking cessation may delay or even prevent the onset of seropositive RA,” the authors wrote.

These findings are also significant because:

  • The results are seen in a very large study group over a test period of 38 years.
  • Compared to people who’ve never smoked, there is still an elevated risk of RA for past smokers, even after quitting 30 years ago.
  • This study showed an increased risk for RA particularly for current high-intensity smokers or those who smoked many packs per year.

Although the exact mechanisms linking smoking with an increased risk of developing RA are still not clear, components in cigarette smoke, such as nicotine, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide, are known to have an impact on the immune system. While stopping smoking may decrease the level of inflammation, the authors of the study believe that the immune system may be permanently altered once you reach a threshold of smoking.

The takeaway from this study? As per usual, stop smoking as soon as possible. In the future, each year that you can look back and count as being a non-smoker can decrease your chances of developing RA. According to Dr. Sparks, an associate physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “the findings are very exciting knowing there is a behavior trait that can modify your RA risk.”

If you are a smoker looking to stop, check out our How to Quit Smoking Guide and talk to your doctor about helpful tools.