7 Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Chris Illiades, MD on August 31, 2020
  • Mother and Daughters
    A Mix of Genetic and Environmental Factors
    Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disease that causes swelling and pain in many joints. It is the most common type of autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease affects your immune system, which is the body’s defense system. The immune system usually attacks invaders like germs. However, an autoimmune disease makes the immune system attack healthy cells by mistake. In RA, the attack mainly occurs against the cells that line your joints. Doctors do not know exactly why some people get RA and others don't. Certain factors, though, could increase your risk.
  • diverse-group-of-women
    Being a Woman
    Anyone can get RA, and it can occur at any age. But, being a woman definitely increases your risk. A woman is 2 to 3 times more likely than a man to develop RA. In fact, about 75% of people living with RA are women. The female hormone estrogen probably has something to do with this. Women usually have the first symptoms of RA after age 40, when their estrogen levels are changing.
  • Mother Kissing Baby
    Never Breastfeeding a Baby
    Breastfeeding offers some protection against RA. Several studies have come to this conclusion. The newest one, published in 2014, surveyed more than 7,000 women. Those who breastfed were half as likely to get RA as women who didn't breastfeed. And, the longer they breastfed, the lower their risk of RA. Women also have a higher RA risk if they never give birth or have irregular menstrual periods. But, the researchers noted that the best protection doesn't come from simply having children. It's breastfeeding that makes the difference.
  • happy family, group, family
    Inheriting Genes for RA
    Several genes passed down through your family can increase your chances of having RA. For instance, if your ancestors came from Europe, you're about twice as likely as others to carry a gene linked to RA. Or, if you have a twin with RA, your chances of having the disease are greater. Your risk goes up only slightly if you have a parent with RA. However, having genes for RA is not the whole story. Many people who have RA-linked genes do not get RA. Experts believe that other risk factors must trigger these genes to become active.
  • Smoking
    Smoking is one of the most likely RA triggers. And, studies show smoking can more than double your chances of developing RA. Smoking can cause problems after you have RA, too. That's because smoking makes your body less able to respond to treatment. A study of more than 1,700 smokers with RA found that smoking decreased the response to two common RA drugs by about 50%.
  • Fish in a pan
    Not Getting Enough Omega-3s
    Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation. That’s why they may help reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases like RA. You can get omega-3s from eating nuts and oily fish, such as tuna, salmon, mackerel and sardines. You can also take pills that contain omega-3s (fish oil supplements). There have been only a few studies on omega-3s and RA. The results suggest that people have fewer RA symptoms when taking omega-3s. And, people taking them also needed fewer over-the-counter drugs to ease pain and swelling from RA.
  • serious-young-woman-lying-on-sofa
    Getting Too Little Vitamin D
    A review of studies, published in 2012, examined the link between vitamin D and RA. It found that people with low levels of vitamin D had a higher risk of RA. On the other hand, those with the highest levels of vitamin D were about 25% less likely to develop RA. To raise your vitamin D levels, get out in the sunlight, eat foods that have vitamin D added to them, or take a vitamin D supplement. A blood test can measure your vitamin D levels.
  • senior hispanic or latino man hiking
    Being Obese
    People don’t always think of obesity as an RA risk factor. It’s a fact that both obesity and RA have been on the rise in recent years. One study compared the weights of people who had RA and people who didn't. It found that being obese was associated with about a 25% higher risk of developing RA. Other research suggests that the best diet for reducing arthritis risk is one that's high in fruits, vegetables, grains and beans.
7 Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis
  1. Rheumatoid Arthritis, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nov. 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/rheumatoid.htm.
  2. Rheumatoid Arthritis, Society for Women’s Research. http://www.womenshealthresearch.org/site/PageServer?pagename=autoimmunity_rheumatoidarthritis.
  3. Breastfeeding May Cut Risk of RA, Arthritis Foundation. http://www.arthritis.org/research/funded-research/research-update/journal-summaries/breastfeeding-ra..., study abstract: http://ard.bmj.com/content/68/4/526.abstract?sid=1ff8beda-596b-43a3-999e-6658a30b160d.
  4. Breastfeeding practice, oral contraceptive use and risk of rheumatoid arthritis among Chinese women: the Guangzhou Biobank Cohort Study, Rheumatology, Nov. 2013. http://rheumatology.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/01/04/rheumatology.ket456.abstract.
  5. Heredity and Arthritis, American College of Rheumatology, May 2013. http://www.rheumatology.org/Practice/Clinical/Patients/Diseases_And_Conditions/Heredity_and_Arthriti....
  6. Smoking Raises Arthritis Risk and Makes It Harder to Treat, Arthritis Foundation, Oct 2009, http://www.arthritistoday.org/news/smoking-rheumatoid-arthritis-risk012.php
  7. Omega-3 fatty acids, University of Maryland Medical Center, May 2011. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega3-fatty-acids.
  8. Association between vitamin D intake and the risk of rheumatoid arthritis: a meta-analysis, Clinical Rheumatology, Dec 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22941259.
  9. Vitamin D, National Institutes of Health, Jun 2011. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/.
  10. Contribution of obesity to the rise in incidence of rheumatoid arthritis, Arthritis Care research, Jan 2013.. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22514156.
  11. Foods and Arthritis, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. http://www.pcrm.org/health/health-topics/foods-and-arthritis.
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Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 31
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