A Look at the Risk Factors for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Oct 25, 2018

Rheumatoid arthritis is a serious and debilitating condition that causes joint inflammation and pain, fatigue, stiffness, and tenderness. An autoimmune disease, it occurs when the body’s immune system begins attacking the tissues in and around the joints. Although scientists and doctors do not yet know what causes rheumatoid arthritis, research has revealed several risk factors.

Some of the risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis, like smoking and obesity, are modifiable — you can change them and thereby reduce your risk. Others, like sex and age, are non-modifiable. Take note of each of the risk factors below so you can assess and mitigate your risk of this painful condition.


Women are at an increased risk for all autoimmune disorders, and rheumatoid arthritis is no exception. Women are about three times as likely as men to develop rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers theorize that women’s higher estrogen levels play a role in the development of the disease. If you are female, you should be particularly vigilant in avoiding any other risk factors you can.


Age is the other major, non-modifiable risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis. Although it can manifest even in childhood, most patients are in late adulthood when they are diagnosed. If you take action to mitigate your risk when you are young, you can decrease your chances of developing rheumatoid arthritis when you are older.


Lung cancer is not the only reason to avoid smoking. A study from Arthritis Research & Therapy showed that women who smoke cigarettes are twice as likely as non-smokers to develop rheumatoid arthritis, even if they only smoke a few cigarettes per day.

If you quit smoking, your risk decreases significantly, although you are still at a higher risk than someone who never smoked. Researchers surmise that certain toxins in the smoke aggravate the immune system, leading to rheumatoid arthritis.

Quitting smoking is not easy, but there are plenty of resources you can turn to for help. Join a support group, ask your doctor about medications that may help, and adopt a new hobby to distract yourself from the urge to smoke.


Being overweight or obese greatly increases your risk of rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, the Arthritis Foundation reports that two out of three people with rheumatoid arthritis are overweight or obese.

Fat cells release certain hormones and compounds that affect the immune system and may cause rheumatoid arthritis to develop. Being overweight also puts excess pressure on your joints, which can make rheumatoid arthritis symptoms more serious.

If you are currently at a healthy weight, maintain a healthy diet and exercise regimen to avoid weight gain as you age. If you are overweight, start taking slow steps to lose a few pounds a month. Find an exercise regimen you enjoy — whether that be swimming, dance, or yoga — and talk to your doctor about healthy dietary changes you can make.

Air Pollution

If you live in an area with heavy air pollution, you may be at an increased risk for rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers suspect that nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, a common air pollutant, increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis when inhaled regularly. NO2 is a component of vehicle emissions. It is released whenever fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas, are burned.

Reduce your exposure to NO2 by avoiding heavy traffic and making sure any fuel-burning stoves or furnaces in your home are properly ventilated.

In addition to the risk factors above, certain people have a genetic predisposition to rheumatoid arthritis. If you have a family history of the condition, be especially vigilant in avoiding any modifiable risk factors you can. If you do develop joint pain and stiffness that you suspect may be due to rheumatoid arthritis, contact the experts at Sarasota Arthritis Center for diagnosis and treatment.

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