Causes & Risk Factors

Although doctors aren’t yet sure what causes rheumatoid arthritis (RA), they do have some ideas. For one thing, they think your genetic background (family history) may play a role. While your genetic background doesn’t actually cause RA, it can make you more vulnerable to things in the environment, like bacteria and viruses, which may trigger the condition. The fact that many more women than men are affected has led some experts to believe that female hormones may also play a role in the development of RA.

Common risk factors for RA
  • Gender. Women account for approximately 70% of RA sufferers. Recent studies show that the incidence of RA in women has increased dramatically in the past 15 years. Experts say many factors may have led to the increase. These include cigarette smoking, vitamin-D deficiency and declining estrogen levels in oral contraceptives, among others.
  • Age. Although RA can occur at any age, the onset of the disease is most common in adults ages 45-65.
  • Recent pregnancy. About 80% of women with RA notice an improvement in their symptoms during pregnancy. However, the condition may appear or get worse in the first year after giving birth. This suggests that hormones, or changes in certain hormones, may increase the likelihood of developing RA in a person who is vulnerable to it.
  • Family history. Certain genetic factors predispose people to RA.
  • Smoking. Need another reason to quit? We’ve long known that there are many health risks associated with smoking cigarettes and breathing in secondhand smoke. Recent studies have shown that there’s a strong link between smoking and RA. Talk to your doctor about the best ways to kick the habit.
Next - Symptoms 
Updated November 2012

Causes & Risk Factors
Your Healthcare Team
Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Examining Your Treatment Options
PT, OT or Surgery?
Make the Team
A Doctor's Perspective: The Inside Scoop on RA
Team Up with Your Doctor to Feel Better
Why RA Tests Matter


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