The final frontier-it isn't necessarily space. A lot closer to home, the human body holds just as much mystery. Consider rheumatoid arthritis (RA). After decades of research, scientists still can't pinpoint the exact cause of the disease. The latest studies suggest a complex combination of genetics and unhealthy habits, putting some of the power of prevention in our hands.
The RA riddle begins with the immune system-our body's natural defense network. In its quest to protect the body against harmful invaders-such as bacteria or infections-the immune system can sometimes go awry. It can start to attack the body's own cells. In such a situation, a person may develop an autoimmune disease, one of which is RA.
Like other types of arthritis, RA strikes the body's joints. It gradually destroys them, hindering movement. Common symptoms include pain, swelling, and stiffness. People often develop RA in their hands or feet. But it can affect any joint and even other body parts, such as the eyes and lungs. It may also prompt fatigue, fevers, and a loss of appetite.
A telltale sign of RA is its symmetry-it usually attacks the same joint on both sides of the body. Other than that, RA can be difficult to diagnose. Part of the problem: People with the disease may not suffer from symptoms all the time. It can flare up periodically. Initial mild symptoms may also mimic other conditions.
Peeling away the mystery
Although scientists understand how RA affects the body, why isn't as clear. Certain genes have been linked to the disease. People with these genes are more likely to develop RA. But having them doesn't guarantee it. That's where other factors enter the equation.
Scientists have studied viruses, hormones, and most recently, lifestyle-related links to RA. Obesity may be a possible promoter of the disease. Recent research has found a connection between the expanding rates of obesity in the U.S. and an uptick in cases of RA. Being overweight seems to especially ignite RA in women-who are more likely to suffer from the disease in the first place.
Smoking is another potential lifestyle risk for RA. A recent study in the journal Arthritis Research and Therapy followed more than 34,000 older women over eight years. Of those who developed RA, nearly two-thirds of them were current or former smokers. In fact, those who had ever smoked-even as little as one to seven cigarettes a day-were twice as likely to have RA. A separate study found a similar connection between smoking in women and men.
These findings suggest that RA-like other chronic conditions such as heart disease-may be partly preventable. Not smoking and watching your weight may help avoid RA. What's more, doctors could use this information to better screen for people who may be susceptible to the disease. That can help with early treatment-the best way to ease symptoms and protect against joint damage.
Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.
April 20, 2016
Foster, Sara, RN, MPH