Obesity and Rheumatoid Arthritis in Women

Obesity and Rheumatoid Arthritis in WomenRheumatoid arthritis, commonly referred to as RA, is an inflammatory and chronic autoimmune disease. It affects at least 1.3 million American adults, according to the American College of Rheumatology.

Early RA starts by affecting the smallest joints in the body, such as the joints that attach your toes to your feet and your fingers to your hands. Over time, the disease spreads to larger joints in the body, including the elbows, ankles, knees, shoulders, and hips.

Its symptoms include:

  • Morning joint stiffness
  • Swollen, warm, and tender joints
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Nodules of tissue under the skin (usually on the arms)

Overweight or obese women have an increased risk of developing RA, especially women who gained extra weight by their late adolescence years, two recent studies have revealed.

Results of the Early RA and Obesity Studies

To arrive at their conclusion, researchers from Harvard Medical School and Brigham & Women’s Hospital studied data from the Nurses Health Study (NHS) and Nurses’ Health Study II (NHSII). They compared the risks of women who developed rheumatoid arthritis after 55 years of age with those who experienced the onset of RA at or before 55 years of age.

The researchers found that for women who, at 18 years of age, had a body mass index, or BMI, of 25 or higher — a marker of being either overweight or obese — there was a 35 percent increased risk for RA. Further, the risk for women developing a more severe form of RA — seropositive RA — was increased by nearly 50 percent. The researchers’ results are published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases.

More than 109,000 women participants were included in the NHS study, which began in 1976 and continued for 32 years of follow-up study. The NHSII study began in 1989, with 20 years of follow-up study, and included more than 108,000 women. Women in both studies completed questionnaires on lifestyle, health, and disease diagnoses every two years. During the follow-up study years, 826 and 355 cases of RA were reported in the NHS and NHSII studies, respectively.

The Brigham and Harvard researchers noted that their study findings were consistent with the results of previous studies determining a link between an RA diagnosis in younger women and obesity. The authors further noted that battling the obesity epidemic for all age groups is important from a public health perspective, considering the elevated risk among obese women at 18 years of age.

Achieving weight loss success through bariatric surgery may decrease the risks of developing weight-related conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

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