Arthritis affects millions of people in this country – about 24% of all adults. Arthritis is not technically a disease but describes a condition in which the cartilage that cushions the bones at the joints and reduces friction between the bones begins to deteriorate, causing pain, stiffness, and discomfort. Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is arthritis caused by a rheumatic condition. 

Rheumatism is a broad term that denotes an autoimmune inflammatory disease. The hallmark of rheumatic conditions is that the body’s immune system begins to attack healthy cells. Rheumatism is usually a chronic condition: in most cases, it cannot be cured but only treated and managed.

With RA, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells at the joints, leading to painful inflammation. However, RA can also impact other organs, including the heart, lungs, skin, blood vessels, and eyes. This is because, unlike other types of arthritis, which develop from wear and tear on the joints due to use, RA attacks the lining of the joints. Consequently, the inflammation caused by RA can affect other bodily tissues. 

Understanding the risk factors associated with RA is crucial for early diagnosis, treatment, and, if possible, prevention. Below are some of the risk factors that have been identified for developing RA. 

Primary Risk Factors Associated with RA

It is unknown what causes the immune system to malfunction and develop RA. While doctors believe there is a genetic predisposition to developing RA, there is no identified genetic cause. Evidence demonstrates, however, that RA is more likely to develop in people according to the following factors:

  • Age: Because it is an autoimmune condition, RA, unlike other types of arthritis, can arise at any age. Nevertheless, the likelihood of developing RA increases with age, possibly because as people age, they are more likely to be exposed to environmental factors that may trigger RA. Most cases of RA are diagnosed among adults in their sixties. 
  • Sex: New cases of RA are found in more women than men by a factor of two or three. While the reasons behind this discrepancy are not entirely understood, this fact suggests that hormonal and genetic factors may play a role in the development of RA.
  • Genetics/Inherited Traits: Certain genes, referred to as HLA (human leukocyte antigen) class II genotypes, are associated with an increased risk of developing RA, and they also influence the severity of the disease once it manifests. While the presence of this gene does not mean a person will develop RA, individuals with the gene seem to be genetically susceptible to developing it.
  • Smoking: Smoking has been consistently linked to an elevated risk of RA. Multiple studies have demonstrated that cigarette smoking not only increases the likelihood of developing RA but can also worsen the disease’s progression in individuals who are already afflicted. 
  • History of Live Births: Interestingly, women who have never given birth may face a higher risk of developing RA. While the exact mechanisms are unclear, this association underscores the complexity of RA’s risk factors, particularly as they relate to hormonal issues. 
  • Early Life Exposures: Research suggests that exposure to certain things early in life may contribute to the development of RA later in life. For example, children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy have been found to have double the risk of developing RA as adults. 
  • Obesity: Being overweight or obese is another risk factor for RA. Studies have shown that the risk of developing RA increases with higher levels of obesity. 
  • Breastfeeding: On the opposite side, breastfeeding has been associated with a decreased risk of developing RA. While the exact mechanisms underlying this relationship are not fully understood, this fact, too, suggests hormonal elements at play and underscores the benefits of breastfeeding for both mothers and infants.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a complex disease influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. However, the exact mechanisms or conditions that trigger the development of RA remain unknown. However, understanding the risk factors for developing RA can help you and your healthcare provider determine your risk of developing RA and inspire you to address the ones you can control.

At Beacon Clinic, we provide healthcare services and ongoing treatment to patients with RA and other rheumatic conditions. If you have RA, we invite you to make an appointment with our Rheumatologist, Dr. Dinning, today. Together, we can work toward reducing the burden of RA and improving the quality of your life.